The versatile Harrison (Enchantments, 2012, etc.)—novelist, biographer, memoirist and true-crime writer—becomes the most recent in a long list of authors to tell the story of the unusual warrior.
Born in 1412 and executed just 19 years later, French peasant Joan of Arc began listening to the voices of angels at age 14 (“hers alone, a rapturous secret”). She did not suspect at first, nor did anybody else, that those angels wanted her to undertake a seemingly impossible task: to lead an army of Frenchmen into battle against the mighty enemy forces from across the channel in England. The tale of Joan of Arc has been told countless times, so why revisit it, especially when hard evidence is lacking? For starters, Harrison's editor suggested the topic. At that point, the author decided 21st century readers required a new narrative of a life so improbable and heroic. Harrison knew, of course, about the daunting list of previous interpreters, including William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht and Mark Twain. She wisely examines some of those previous interpretations, finding some of the speculation and historicism plausible but some of it wanting. Harrison examines Joan as a sexual being as well as a warrior and perhaps a schizophrenic. The sexuality angle becomes especially provocative when Harrison discusses how God may have favored Joan due to the virginity she advertised so boldly. The author recounts the battle scenes in sometimes-excruciating detail and gives plenty of space to her arrest, trial and execution. She also provides a chronology. The vivid stories of Joan’s remarkable life never died completely, leading to her canonization as a saint in 1920.
Harrison joins the psychobiography school of life writing, doing so with memorable writing and an energetic approach.