"A master of the story form" (The New York Times) offers a fresh, revealing portrait of the legendary saint
Celebrated novelist Mary Gordon brings Joan of Arc alive as a complex figure full of contradictions and desires, as well as spiritual devotion. A humble peasant girl, Joan transformed herself into the legendary Maid of Orléans, knight, martyr, and saint. Following the voice of God, she led an army to victory and crowned the king of France, only to be captured and burned at the stake as a heretic—all by the age of nineteen. Gordon does more than tell this gripping story—she explores Joan's mystery and the many facets of her inspiring life.
One would expect nothing less from Gordon (Spending) than a splendid, spare account of Joan's life--and she delivers in this slender but satisfying account, a new entry in the Penguin Lives series. The facts of Joan of Arc's life are straightforward: she was born in 1412, in Domr my, France, to a peasant family; she participated in the Hundred Years' War but was in active military service for only a year; and she was burned at the stake at 19. Novelist Gordon, who has always been fascinated by the young heroine, emphasizes Joan the girl. She acknowledges that the 17-year-old could have been a wife and mother, a fully adult member of her community. But Gordon's Joan "has a young girl's heedlessness, sureness, readiness for utter self-surrender." This biography rehearses the well-known highlights in Joan's short life: the voices she heard who charged her with the mission to save France; her participation in the Battle of Orl ans and the coronation of King Charles VII; her trial by an ecclesiastical court, where she was charged with witchcraft, heresy and idolatry. The judges, Gordon tells us in a deft and clever interpretation, connected "Joan's cross-dressing to the sin of idolatry. were accusing Joan of making an idol of herself." Gordon recounts Joan's excommunication and execution in spare and arresting detail. The strength of this "biographical meditation" lies in the penultimate chapter, in which Gordon investigates the numerous re-creations of Joan on stage and screen, from Carl Dreyer's 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc to Verdi's opera Giovanna d'Arco-a chapter that comes like an unexpected dessert at the end of a rich feast.