Donna Woolfolk Cross,
Pope Joan
(Ballantine, 1997)

Joan of Ingelheim is the youngest and least of her strictly patriarchal family. When she discovers she not only loves learning, but also possesses an aptitude for it even greater than that of her male counterparts, only trouble can follow within the enclosed life of a 9th-century female.

Though Joan's eagerness and application to study gain her the tutelage of her brilliant eldest brother and her slower brother's teacher, no amount of lessons or ideas can sate her thirst for knowledge. What more natural solution than to escape the repressed world of Ingelheim and her tyrannical father's disapproval than by running off to school in spite of all refusal?

This first liberation brings Joan both the education she craves and the man she would love for the rest of her life, but no amount of independence or freedom allowed even to such a remarkably intelligent girl could truly satisfy her. Only a man could have access to all the libraries, the discussions and the politics Joan desired in her world. Therefore, when the opportunity offered itself in the guise of a Viking attack, she became the monk Brother John in her brother's stead.

As an equally remarkable man, Joan's career thrived on her newfound independence and an acceptance for her abilities she could never have attained as a woman. This novel follows her quest for enlightenment and tolerance throughout her life, and asks the question: Who is allowed to achieve happiness in this world? Above all else, this is the story of someone who tried to make this goal more reachable for everyone.

Donna Woolfolk Cross provides herself with a wide range of characters through which to paint Joan's world using example and symbolism. This cleverly woven background will keep readers intrigued through what it reveals of the historical time period, as well as the messages it imparts to supplement that of Joan's own story.

Including such a long time period, as well as multiple viewpoints, is a challenge that for the most part is handled well for Cross's first historical novel. There are discrepancies between the characters' aging processes, and certain aspects of the story are rough or introduced too abruptly. Nevertheless, readers will find Pope Joan a good use of their time and learn something about the likelihood of a real Pope Joan.

review by
Whitney Mallenby

1 December 2007

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