Pope Joan: A Novel
by Donna Woolfolk Cross
Broadway Books (2009)
This 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.