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Joan: A Novel of Joan of Arc


Joan: A Novel of Joan of Arc

There are few people, even in today’s differently educated generation, who haven’t heard the name Joan of Arc. Although few solid facts are known about this early-15th-century peasant girl from the rural French village of Domrémy, her brief but radically unusual life (she didn’t even make it to age 20) has been celebrated in just about every existing art form, including poetry, novels, nonfiction, opera, painting, sculpture, film, video games, comic books and performance art. It’s a long list for any celebrity.

Joan of Arc comes down to us in the 21st century as both an eclectic and enigmatic character --- adopted by some as a feminist icon, adored by others as a militant heroine of French nationalism, revered as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, and marketed as a mighty medieval precursor of Wonder Woman-style action characters.

"Chen told me a story of moving and often poignant power, and that’s what counts. I highly recommended JOAN, especially for anyone who thinks they 'hate' historically informed fiction."

In creating JOAN, novelist Katherine J. Chen had to take on a daunting social and historical legacy that is long on speculation and maddeningly short on substance. Bottom line: she does it brilliantly in this convincing 350-page tale that brings a legendary young woman to life on her own terms.

Building on the sparse framework of existing facts --- Joan’s birth around 1412, her life-changing audience at age 17 with the embattled Dauphin (France’s king-in-waiting), her documented military victories and defeats in combat with English forces --- Chen colorfully fleshes out both her character and the turbulent times in which she lived. Weaving facts authentically into fiction, she builds a convincing, engaging and detailed context that explores and reveals the often stark realities of medieval life during the infamous Hundred Years’ War period.

Interestingly enough (spoiler alert for some), JOAN concludes just before the most catastrophic hard fact of all: her burning at the stake at just 19 years of age after being condemned as a heretic. Perhaps Chen felt as I did in reading this absorbing page-turner of a story: where do you go after the death of the main protagonist? Instead, JOAN focuses on the kind of journey such a remarkable young woman might well have taken from obscurity to fame, and back down again, to become the scapegoat of disaffected supporters who punished her for being human rather than divinely supernatural.

Steeped in Chen’s exhaustive research into medieval religion and morality, one can almost see the wheel of goddess Fortuna (immortalized in the extraordinary poetry of the Carmina Burana and in art of the time), relentlessly ascending and descending. Even with her lack of formal education, Joan of Arc would almost certainly have understood this powerful symbol and accepted its influence as fate. All that rise inevitably fall; on earth, life is rarely fair.

Where Chen succeeds most impressively is in the vivid flow of deftly created personal interactions that fully respect known facts, but build a fully independent character who realizes her own potential and agency in an eternal present tense. The historical Joan was then, but Chen’s Joan is now --- meaning that she exercises an author’s right to weave issues such as parental abuse, patriarchy, discrimination, social inequity, religious tyranny, and a variety of other moral and philosophical concerns into the events and obstacles that continually destabilize her young heroine’s imagined life.

Equally powerful are Joan’s internal monologues as she works out who she is in the world and questions what God really wants of her. At times, Chen adeptly casts Joan as a convincingly rebellious teenager who has a love-hate relationship with religion, even though her faith seems to win out in the end.

As someone who generally prefers fact to fiction, my reservations about a novel on the life of Joan of Arc were dispelled almost immediately by the captivating prose. The thing that matters least of all is whether or not the “real” Joan of Arc was even remotely like the one in these pages. Chen told me a story of moving and often poignant power, and that’s what counts. I highly recommended JOAN, especially for anyone who thinks they “hate” historically informed fiction.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on July 29, 2022

Joan: A Novel of Joan of Arc
by Katherine J. Chen

  • Publication Date: June 20, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 1984855824
  • ISBN-13: 9781984855824