Joan of Arc has long been one of the most romantic, brave and tragic characters in history. Kimberly Cutter has taken on the life of the great saint in her first novel, The Maid.

Our review said that “[t]he novel covers familiar ground, but Cutter’s protagonist is more than a tomboy saint. Jehanne’s foolhardy bravery (she is wounded three times, and survives a 70-foot fall), her fervent, some would say fanatical piety (her armies must abstain from alcohol, sex and profanity during campaigns) and her struggle to reconcile her righteous bloodlust with her abhorrence of violence, bespeak multifaceted humanity. Cutter does not shrink from depicting the depravity of warriors on both sides.”

Check out some National Book Award finalists for 2011. 

Here, an excerpt from the first chapter:

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She awakes in darkness, curled on the cold stone floor of the tower. The stink of urine and rotted straw burning her nostrils. Iron cuffs biting at the sores on her wrists. Quickly she grabs at the receding dream, hoping to pull it back, to wrap herself up once more in its fierce joy. But no, it’s too late. The last tendrils slip through her fingers, and she is left in the dark with her guards—three of them inside the cell with her, two out in the hall.

They are all asleep now, in this dim, lonesome hour. Propped in the shadows like dolls with their heads fallen forward and their mouths open, snoring. But soon enough, she knows, they’ll be awake. Soon enough the big one, the one they call Berwoit, will grin with his square blue teeth and start in with his taunts. “Lift up your skirts for us, witch. Show us what you got under there. Is it a cock or is it a pussy?”

It’s clear that she’ll die soon. She sees this too in her dreams. The enormous, crackling yellow fire in the square, the grinning Bishop, the appalled, delighted crowds. The priest Massieu says it’s not true. “You’re safe now,” he whispers. Now that she’s repented, she’s safe.

Soon, he says, they’ll transfer her to a church prison, and there will be no more beatings and no more trial, and eventually, the Goddons will forget about her. The war will end, and she’ll be set free. “Be patient, child,” he says. “Give them time to forget.”

She feels sorry for Massieu. Knows he’s half in love with her. Even with her shaved head and the rough burlap dress the Bishop makes her wear, even with her ribs jutting out like a starved dog’s, he looks at her with shining eyes, sneaks her bits of bread and extra cups of water, brings her wormwood salve for her bruises. She’d like to believe him, but she knows it isn’t true. They hate her too much, the English. They will not be happy until they dance on her bones. 

Often in the night, when she can’t sleep, Massieu comes and sits with her. He waits until the guards are snoring, then drags his low wooden stool over to her cell and sits beside her in the darkness. Holds the bars with his big pink hands, gazes at her. Sometimes he reads from the

Bible. Other times he sings, jokes, tries to make her laugh. Occasionally he grows daring, asks questions: “Is it true what they say? Are you a saint?”

Excerpted from THE MAID by Kimberly Cutter. Copyright © 2011 by Kimberly Cutter. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.