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Review: Pope Joan, Donna Woolfolk Cross

popejoanAs a child, Joan is beaten for her brilliance and love of books.  Her rigid father, a canon of the church, believes that women are inferior to men, incapable of learning, and is certain that his sons are destined for great careers in the church.  When Joan’s intelligence gets both her and her brother John into a school, she is mocked by everyone except kindly Gerold, a young count who takes her in since she can’t live in the boys’ dormitory.  Joan has an uncertain future until her brother John is killed in a surprise Viking attack along with almost everyone she knows.  Assuming John’s identity, Joan enters a monastery and, distinguished by her incredible mind, eventually heads to Rome in a career that will prove as dangerous as it is ambitious.

I don’t know if Pope Joan actually existed, but if she did, her life in this novel certainly makes for an amazing story.  It’s incredible how much Joan suffers and achieves in this book, going from beaten, submissive but intelligent little girl to a successful pope, albeit a female one.  Joan is someone that can easily be admired as she never lets anyone get her down or force her to do anything that she knows is wrong.  Even when the unspeakable happens during the Viking raid, Joan is able to take stock of her situation and figure out what needs to be done in order to both stay alive and get ahead in the world.  She is strong enough to deny her own personal needs for the sake of the people and her faith.

The plot of this novel feels like it moves along fairly quickly.  For under 500 pages, this book packs in a lot of events, but nothing ever feels rushed, it’s paced perfectly.  Obviously, we know Joan is going to become a pope, but how she gets there is a mystery.  There are also two other viewpoint characters, Gerold and Anastasius, who provide an alternate perspective on Joan as well as adding subplots and texture to her central story.  Of the three, I liked Anastasius the least, but he’s not exactly a true villain because he’s just too ambitious.  Most of the church was corrupt and he can’t entirely be faulted for acting as normal; Joan is just different and special enough to point out the flaws in the system.

In the author’s note, Donna Woolfolk Cross includes a fairly compelling argument for the existence of Pope Joan, although of course she was required to add huge amounts of fictional material to fill in the copious gaps which are inevitably left in any ninth-century account.  For once I didn’t care all that much if it was true because I could really lose myself in the story.  I know that women as strong as Joan must have existed in the Middle Ages, so it wasn’t really all that much of a stretch, whether there really was a Pope Joan or not.

In all, Pope Joan is a fascinating, moving work of historical fiction.  It completely captured me and I couldn’t put it down.  I highly recommend it.

While you’re here, if you do buy a copy of this book before July 31st, you can enter into the author’s red carpet contest to attend the movie premiere.  And don’t forget that if you’ve entered on my giveaway post for a signed copy of this book that a comment here will gain you another entry!

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15 comments to Review: Pope Joan, Donna Woolfolk Cross

  • I have been quite disappointed with all the historical fiction I’ve read recently. I am looking forward to reading one which I can’t put down! This sounds great!

    Jackie (Farm Lane Books)’s last blog post..The House at Riverton – Kate Morton

  • Pam R.

    I’ve read other great reviews of this book too. As far-fetched as it sounds, I think it could be true that there was a female pope at one time. I’d love to read this.

  • Great review! I loved this book. Joan was such an inspiring characted and I loved how her brilliance was captured numerous times throughout the book. I vaguely recall something about an Adam before Eve argument…

  • Great review! I have been seeing this book pop up all over the place, and I think the premise is fascinating. I hope to get my hands on a copy sometime soon. Glad you enjoyed it!

  • This is one that I really want to read! I love reading about smart and strong women, and of course the idea of a female pope is fascinating.

  • Kay

    I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, it looks so interesting! Especially since I had never heard of this story before.

  • Aw, I wish I could buy it. But maybe they have it at the library.

    • Hey, Heidenkind! Donna Woolfolk Cross, author of Pope Joan, here. I’m not sure that libraries yet have the “new and improved” version of my novel (with much larger print, for one thing–as well as corrections and additions, an updated “Author’s Note” (with new evidence in favor of Joan’s existence), and a list of “Best of the Best” reading group questions, based on my many years of chatting with reading groups all over the U.S. and Canada.

      As Pope Joan is in paperback, buying it at amazon.com only costs $10.20!! (plus shipping). Hope that’s affordable for you–but if not, then check for the many giveaways being offered this month on book blog sites (like Meghan’s–one of the best, as you know, and it was just voted “Best Historical Fiction Website of 2008!)

      Also, Kay, Alice Zibilee and Jackie: if you’re serious about wanting to read the novel, you should consider buying a copy before July 31st–for that qualifies you for a chance to “Walk the Red Carpet” with me at the U.S. movie premiere! Details are at http://popejoan.com/2009promo.htm.

      Thanks to all–especially to you Meghan–for your wonderful (and very well-written!) review of Pope Joan, a woman too long neglected by history!

  • Great review ! You aroused my interest and my curiosity. I would love to read it !

  • Wonderful review. The premise really reminds me of a story that I read as a kid. It was about a woman who posed as a man to enter the monastery, and then fell in love with one of her fellow monks. Eventually she was found out, and killed. Tragic story, but I remember thinking it was very good.

    I love books with strong female characters, and think that this sounds like a really good one. I’ve added it to my Wish List.

  • I won a copy of this book and am really looking forward to reading it. Great review.

  • I’m sold. I’ve been reading and hearing about this book for awhile, and have been wanting to read it, but now it’s been bumped up to the top of my library list. I know almost nothing about how people lived and what things were like in this time period, and am eager to read more about that! And Pope Joan sounds like a great character!

  • Super book – I am loving it so much! I have sent in my receipt and love this great giveaway idea Donna has come up with! Highly recommend this read and I will be putting it out there for my book club to vote on in August.

  • Grad School Mommy

    I agree — whether or not Pope Joan actually existed is almost tangential. When the historical context is this rich, I care more about the character development than accuracy. Sounds like a great read! Thanks for the giveaway!

    tworboy(at)hotmail(dot)com

  • I’ve heard a lot of good things about this one. I’ll keep it in mind.