Pope Joan cover

Review: Pope Joan

Pope Joan: A Novel

by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Broadway Books (2009)

Pope Joan coverThis historical novel tells the incredible story of a girl in the Dark Ages who longs to be a scholar. She runs away from a dysfunctional home and eventually is given a place in a school. She falls in love with her guardian—a married man.

After a brutal attack by Vikings, she disguises herself as a young man and becomes a monk. She eventually lands in Rome, still disguised as a man, and becomes physician to the Pope. When that pope is murdered, she is reluctantly elected to replace him.

Throughout the story, Joan suffers because she is a woman in a decidely man’s world. She must live as a man to reach her goals. She cannot acknowledge the love of her life, and the romance was continually stifled.

I was quite frustrated by the ideals of 9th-century Europe, of course. The church was suffocating and cruel (but the heroine was good-hearted and intelligent). I was turned off by the political scheming and conspiracies, although the story did remind me of the constant danger of that time period.

The author obviously did a lot of research for this book. The details were interesting but sometimes overwhelmed the plot. For instance, I didn’t know that during this time all Romans, not just clergy, voted for a new pope. If I wasn’t so interested in history, this book would not have kept my attention.

Overall, the novel was engaging if unbelievable.

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