JOAN OF ARC by Mary Gordon


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Illiterate adolescent peasant girl, prompted by inner voices, turns knight-redeemer of her country—temporarily. A life of the

martyr Joan of Arc (1412–31), presented (contradictions intact) by a lifelong admirer.

Gordon (Seeing Through Places, 2000, etc.), whose works often portray women confronting faith, pinpoints how “Gift,

chance, accident, coincidence” converged during the Hundred Years” War to manifest such a heroine, crusading to crown an

unwilling Dauphin as God’s elect who would ransom France. Gordon highlights how Joan vindicated here prophetic status by

manipulating symbols (her divinely designed battle standard, her armor, and her male dress) to leverage untrustworthy men: the

king who soon shunned his champion, the companions-in-arms who fought then flitted, the French royals who sold her out, and

the accusers who tried and burned her as a heretic. Gordon qualifies the myths surrounding this incredibly brave and resilient

down-to-earth na‹f: Joan was surprised when a wound she “foretold” actually hurt, and shaken when confronted with war’s human

misery. A chronology stresses the enforced brevity of Joan’s career: a fitful tactician alive only in action (when Joan let “her

military judgment and her religious scruples” diverge), both her victories and her charisma vanished soon enough. Gordon (like

Joan’s rehabilitators) does not discuss “the difficult issues of inspiration and its verification,” however, leaving us to wonder about

the question that stands at the center of the legend: namely, whose heavenly directives are genuine? And who can we know? All

contention is focused upon that strong unviolated female body, remote from standard hierarchies of sex, class, deference, chivalry,

orthodoxy. Though analogies intended as timeless fall short (“Girls aren’t supposed to brag”), Gordon trenchantly discerns how

virginity granted autonomy, and one senses that Joan’s mission required neither gender. Surveying the manifold purposes served

by this idiosyncratic saint, Gordon characterizes her best: “the patroness of the vivid life.”

A bold “biographical meditation” that persuades the skeptic to meditate on the inexplicable something Joan made happen,

and keeps on happening, to this day. (First serial to Commonweal; author tour)

Pub Date: April 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-670-88537-1
Page count: 180pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2000


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