Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Book 30: Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint

NUMBER: 30
TITLE: Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint
AUTHOR: Donald Spoto
STARTED: June 5, 2007
FINISHED: June 10, 2007
PAGES: 222
GENRE: Biography

FIRST SENTENCE: In libraries and on Web sites, you can readily count hundreds of biographies of Joan of Arc published in English since the middle of the nineteenth century.

SUMMARY: [From barnesandnoble.com] During the tumultuous Hundred Years' War between England and France, a teenage peasant girl followed her heart and helped save a nation. A vision from God, received in her parents' garden, instructed her to take up arms and help restore the kingdom of France. Without consulting her family, Joan left home on one of the most remarkable personal quests in history. As a young girl in a world of men, she faced unimaginable odds, yet her belief in her mission propelled her forward. Within months Joan was directing soldiers and bravely fighting for her nation. Before long she had become a national hero and was the guest of honor at her king's coronation. Yet fame ultimately became her undoing. The English shrewdly realized that Joan's demise and defamation would disgrace France and provide a more direct route to victory. Captured in war, Joan became a pawn in one of the longest and bloodiest wars in history.

Since her death at the age of nineteen in 1431, Joan of Arc has maintained a remarkable hold on our collective imagination. She was a teenager of astonishing common sense and a national heroine who led men in battle as a courageous warrior. Yet she was also abandoned by the king whose coronation she secured, betrayed by her countrymen, and sold to the enemy. In this meticulously researched landmark biography, Donald Spoto expertly captures this astonishing life and the times in which she lived. Neither wife nor nun, neither queen nor noblewoman, neither philosopher nor stateswoman, Joan of Arc demonstrates that anyone who follows their heart has the power to change history.

REASON FOR READING: Joan of Arc is one of the historical figures who fascinates me.

THOUGHTS: For having a minor obsession with the historical Joan of Arc, I've actually read very little about her. In fact, outside of random articles, I have not read anything about her. Donald Spoto's biography was a pretty good place to start. Joan was and continues to be a rather polarizing figure. In his book, Spoto tries to walk a fine line between all the warring factions. His goal, which he readily achieves, was to simply detail Joan as an historical figure. Spoto neither declares her saint nor heretic, he simply documents her life in prose and descriptions that give the reader a better understanding of who Joan was as a human person.

At first, I was quite worried that this book would spend more time discussing Spoto than Joan. In the introduction, Spoto details where past biographies and research have gone wrong while showing why his will be so much better. I was waiting, just waiting, for this biography to become nothing more than an academic boosting his own ego. Thankfully, those statements of greatness were limited purely to the introduction of Spoto's methods. I was able to easily disregard his preening and enjoy the work itself.

Spoto's writing is clear and concise while giving a remarkable insight into who Joan must have been as a person. Spoto spends time breaking down Joan's writing and statements, highlighting her personality, wit, passion, and sense of humor. He also describes how Joan's companions viewed her. All of these personal details craft a detailed image of Joan in the reader's mind. One begins to understand why the French and France put themselves wholly behind the young, illiterate country girl. Joan was not a shrinking violet, she was a girl on a mission. The book also helps to elicit why the English would revile her and wish to end her profound influence on the French people.

It is clear that Spoto does not want to call Joan anything other than a remarkable girl. He successfully walks the fine line between declaring her saint or sinner. Spoto spends times describing why Joan has developed so many reputations and opposing opinions over the past few hundred years. In discussing all the sides of the issue, Spoto allows the reader to meditate on Joan as a person who simply lead an extraordinary life.

MISCELLANEOUS: This book needed an endpaper map.

RATING: 7/10 [Very Good]

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