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Review of Pope Joan: A Novel by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Donna Woolfolk Cross offers a fascinating historical fiction tale of a pioneering, headstrong, brilliant figure whose existence has been debated for centuries.


Pope Joan is Donna Woolfolk Cross's historical fiction about a figure whose existence the Catholic church has officially denied for a thousand years: Joan, a young woman who disguised herself as a man in the ninth century and rose through the ranks to eventually sit on the throne of St. Peter.

I'm fascinated by stories in which a woman poses as a man in order to achieve freedoms otherwise not available to her. In Pope Joan, Cross offers fascinating, grim, brutal details of life in the Dark Ages to bring the story of the brilliant, strong-willed Joan to life. Cross includes historical events, but makes up some characters (as with Gerold, Joan's love interest in the story).

When her brother John is murdered in a Viking attack, Joan takes up his cloak and his identity, traveling to the monastery of Fulda and quickly standing out as a brilliant learner and gifted healer.

When she rises in the ranks to Rome, she witnesses the sometimes-deadly political maneuverings surrounding the Pope. When she takes up the mantle of the greatest power in the land, she faces resistance, danger, and complications galore--including the presence of her young love, Gerold.

I was fascinated by Cross's Author's Note detailing the extensive research and rich history surrounding Joan, as well as the contradictions in the denial of her existence.


Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

Other historical fiction books with faith elements that I've loved include Revelations and Illuminations by Mary Sharratt and The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd.

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