"Joan: A Novel of Joan of Arc" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
There is historical fiction and then there is historical fiction.
Some books in this genre can be read without a lot of focus, as mere entertainment; that isn’t the case with Katherine J. Chen’s immersive new must-read “Joan, A Novel.” It’s meaty and captivating from the first page, providing just enough French history to serve as a backdrop for the larger-than-life character Chen creates in the legendary Frenchwoman warrior.
Chen states in her Afterword that she fell in love with “Joan” as she wrote about her, using poetic license to imagine a Joan that is “intensely personal” to her. To say she succeeds is an understatement.
The book opens with France in turmoil—the country at war with England for nearly 100 years. Two men “grapple to rule,” the Dauphin, who’s been ousted from Paris, and his father’s cousin, the Duke of Burgundy. “There are thus three forces at play during this time, with England and Burgundy allied on one side and France on the other.”
It’s 1422, and Joan is a girl of 10 years, the youngest daughter of an abusive oaf of a father who beats her at the slightest infraction, simply because he doesn’t like who she is. Joan is pure of heart—a sensitive but rough and tumble child. She sticks up for underlings and passionately adores her beautiful older sister, who is in good favor with her father, him realizing a dowery will be possible, Catherine will fleece his pocket.
Other than her sister, Joan’s only ally is her uncle Durand, a storyteller who relates tales of battles to his niece, who can hold her own in scrapes with the village boys of Domrémy.
Still Joan’s courage and fortitude draw neither respect or love from her father who early in the novel blames the death of a 7-year-old local boy on his not being tough enough. “It is the coddling of mothers that brings about …frailty in boys, for all women are weak and soft. They were born to be such.” Though Joan has three brothers and a mother, in addition to her beloved sister, no one stands up for her. There really is no reason for her to stay in her home, other than to care for the dog she’s devoted to and watch over Catherine.
When tragedy befalls the family, Joan’s heart is broken in a dual loss that she feels for the rest of her life. Six years later, she realizes she must escape from her father and sets off on her own, with scarcely any money in her pocket as she “makes (her) own journey.”
So begins a series of events that lead to Joan gaining favor with the Dauphin, a buffoon of a man, more interested in finery, fluff and wine than military maneuvers. He is taken with Joan because of her reputation on the battlefield, and the fact that she seems called by God to succeed, her defeats miraculous, as well as her physical endurance.
Chen’s heroine is larger than life, but so very human as she faces victories and defeats, deals with a crisis of faith, and the eventual distrust in court that comes when the people of France grow to love her more than the Dauphin.
“Joan” is a book to marvel over, to savor and read again to digest every well written word.