book review, Catholic Church, Charles VII, court politics, cult of heroism, epic, fifteenth century, France, historical fiction, Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc, Katherine J. Chen, literary fiction, military leader, religion, revisionism, secular leader, strong characterization
Review: Joan, by Katherine J. Chen
Random House, 2022. 343 pp. $28
One summer day in 1422, ten-year-old Jeanne d’Arc gathers stones for a fight between the boys of her village, Domrémy, against their Burgundian neighbors. The singular, disturbing ending to that brief battle will stay in the girl’s memory forever. But that day ends like any other; her father beats her, this time for dropping a bowl.
She is using her palm to ladle as much stew as she can into her mouth, so that she can’t be accused of wasting food. . . . Also, she is eating from the floor because, in spite of her grief or owing to it, she is starving. In her haste, she has swallowed a bit of the bowl itself, a hard and tiny crumb. . . . Fresh rushes are spread on the floor, and somehow she has chewed a bit of them, too. There’s the taste of grass in her mouth, along with everything else she has gulped down already.
The room has turned sideways. It takes her a moment to understand why, until she pins down the source of her pain: her ear, her left ear, is inside her father’s fist.
Over several years, his blows harden her, both to the pain and because her efforts to elude him lead her to perform useful, physically demanding chores for neighbors, which take her out of his reach—carrying sacks of grain, patching a roof, lifting a cart from the mud.
Jeanne grows tall and powerful, but she’s also a thinker. She’s drawn to her ne’er-do-well uncle because he’s kind and has traveled. She too dreams of going elsewhere, but how, to do what? And could she ever leave her beloved older sister, Catherine, who’s tried to protect her?
This is Joan of Arc, unwittingly preparing for her role in history. You know she’ll leave Domrémy, pass numerous tests that let her penetrate the inner circles of power in a divided France burdened by constant, unsuccessful war against the English invaders. She’ll meet the Dauphin, the future Charles VII, who’ll allow her to lead his soldiers.
Except that this Joan is secular. Chen’s creation hears no saints’ voices, has little use for the Church, and comes belatedly (and reluctantly) to claim divine sanction. In her way, this Joan has religious faith, but I think from a perspective rare, if not unknown, in fifteenth-century France. Rather, she’s a soldier, first and foremost, and how she becomes a fighter and strategist makes a compelling, epic story.
Chen’s approach will offend those who believe historical fiction should render history as faithfully as possible, and since the sources on Jeanne d’Arc are many, these critics will decry the book as revisionism. Readers who have particular affection for the traditional story, perhaps for cultural or religious reasons, will also take exception; I know because I’ve discussed the book with people from both camps. I respect their sensibilities, though I don’t share them.
But I don’t accept how certain naysayers ascribe unsavory motives to the author, whether the urge to trample values others hold dear, or the lure of making money, and to hell with history. What utter nonsense, which suggests how threatening iconoclasm is. Too bad.
Chen is not only a brilliant novelist, she clearly loves her characters and has great respect for the time period, especially the politics and certain aspects of daily life, which she renders beautifully. From the field at the stone fight in the beginning to a town fair to a room at the Dauphin’s castle at Chinon where an enemy tries to entrap her into treason, the narrative imbues physical spaces with mood and character.
Tension thrums throughout, though I particularly admire the court scenes at Chinon and the characterizations that emerge: the Dauphin, his mother-in law, and Joan’s future comrades-in-arms, Dunois and La Hire, to name a few.
Admittedly, I don’t sense the fifteenth century in Domrémy—too much friendliness, not enough superstition. But it’s not twenty-first century either, and however old these events and characters really are, they seem entirely coherent among one another, complete, and logical. One measure of this understanding is how Chen has Joan argue for making artillery—fanciful, I suppose, yet intriguing, given that the king who shrugs off this notion in distaste would later accept it from the mouth of another famous commoner, Jacques Coeur.
Another measure of completeness is how all the expected issues come into play—the Dauphin’s weakness of character, the prejudice against a peasant woman, the soldiers’ devotion, France struggling to become a nation, and so on. They just happen without religion driving the narrative. Impossible in the fifteenth century? Yes, but that’s just about the only difference between the traditional story and this one.
Call it revisionism, if you like, but I recoil at what a few of my colleagues have said, that to describe this book—which they haven’t read—you’d have to drop the historical from historical fiction.
Not only do I admire this novel, I plan to study how the author has written it. Joan touches a nerve, but maybe that’s a good thing.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.