POPE JOAN by Donna Woolfolk Cross

POPE JOAN

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 A remarkable woman uses her considerable intellect--and more than a little luck--to rise from humble origins to become the only female Pope, in this breakneck adventure from newcomer Cross. A longstanding tradition has insisted that there was a female Pope in the ninth century. The author's version of that story imagines Joan as the daughter of a village canon. Singled out for tutoring by a wise Greek, she learns quickly, but her father sees her knowledge as an abomination and blocks further progress. She runs away to join her brother at school, but is reviled by fellow students and her schoolmaster alike, even though she has the support of Gerold, the local count. Gerold falls in love with her, so his wife plots to marry her off while he is away; a Viking raid intervenes, however, leaving Joan the sole survivor. Determined never again to be betrayed by being female, she dresses as a man and enters a Benedictine monastery, where her aptitude for learning and healing propels her rapidly into the priesthood. Years pass; Joan makes a remarkable recovery from the plague and decides to go to Rome. There, she saves the life of Pope Sergius, and in her new role as papal physician again meets Gerold, rekindling the spark between them. When Sergius dies, and intrigue leads to the poisoning of his successor, Joan is elected Pope as the people's choice. Together, she and Gerold work to help the poor, but when a flood gives them the opportunity to be truly alone, passion reasserts itself. Joan learns that she is pregnant just as plotters act against her, leaving a bloody finale to be played out on the streets of Rome. No lack of action here, but also not much food for thought. Still, what seems a too facile rendering of a complex story might certainly appeal as light summer reading.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-517-59365-3
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Crown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1996