As 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!