Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Maid, by Kimberly Cutter

When I was 16, my mom and I took a bus tour around France.  One of the stops was in Rouen; a city whose claim to fame is being the location when Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake for being a witch by the invading English force.  What do I remember most about this stop on our vacation?  We had a lovely lunch at a crepe restaurant, and wandered past a rather small memorial to Joan in a city square.  At the time, it was just a passing activity during a full week of passing activities.  But even at 16, I was interested in (English) history, so what I took away from the stop was that the English had been really ambitious, and had managed to penetrate very deeply into France.  But after that, I stopped thinking about the 100 Years War, Joan of Arc, and Rouen.  It never figured into any of my studies in University, so when I found my latest read The Maid, by Kimberly Cutter, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to learn a bit more about the facts behind the legend of Joan of Arc.

For those (like me) who know/knew little about Joan’s story, here’s a potted history: this was an era in France of great unrest; the English were invading from the north, and the Burgundian forces were marauding out of the Paris area.  To further complicate the national issues, the crown wasn’t settled firmly on anyone; the French king had gone mad, his wife was accused of various crimes against decency, and the rightful heir was forced to flee Paris by the Duke of Burgundy and so was living as a ‘pretender,’ surrounded by a court of self-serving noblemen.  Jehanne d’Arc was growing up in the country-side during this time of uncertainty, and found a great deal of comfort from her time spent in prayer.  One day, Jehanne experienced a holy visitation from the arch-angle Michael, and later visits from the Saints Catherine and Margaret; the purpose of these visits was to direct Jehanne in how to lead the French army against the English and Burgundians and put the pretender on the throne.  After many tests of her veracity and many trails of her earnestness, Jehanne is finally put in a position of power over the French army, and leads them to multiple victories; however, the in-fighting at court slowly erodes her power-base with the pretender (by this time, and thanks to Jehann, Charles VII), until she marches into battle under-supported, is captured, and sold to the English.  After a trail for witchcraft, Jehanne was burnt at the stake.  She was 19 years old.

What I appreciated in Cutter’s work was that the historical narrative was well respected, but there was enough license taken to make the whole story a human tale.  Jehanne’s fear at being unable to live up to the expectations of her holy visitors, her struggles with earthly temptations, and her burning passions for her holy mission are all described with a real sense of humanity and believability in order to make this extremely complex and impressive period of history relatable to the modern reader.  More than just Jehanne’s story, the reader also gets a look at the human side of other various historical persons, such as King Charles, the Duke of Alençon, and Yolande, Charles’ mother-in-law and the driving force behind his claim to the throne.  

I was less thrilled, however, with Cutter’s writing style.  To me, it seemed like the narrative shifted unaccountably in the voice used; some passages are first person-present tense, others are third person-past tense.  I realize the Jehanne is recounting her story to a priest while imprisoned in Rouen, but this shifting between voices was extremely distracting and made Cutter seem like an inexperienced author (which isn’t at all true – her pedigree is strong).  Unfortunately, this (what I see) as a flaw at the very foundations of the book, made the reading less enjoyable than it could have been, and so it took me over a week to finish what could have been read in a day.

So, final verdict?  If you’re interested in this period of history (either avidly or in passing), then this book is for you; the historical narrative seems strong and well researched.  If you’re really interested, you’ll be able to over-look the foundational issues in the writing style.  If, however, you’re not a history buff of the 100 Years War, I would take a pass on this one.  There’s a wonderful short skit The Simpsons did a few years ago on this period of history – I’d strongly recommend you check it out of a quick-and-dirty history lesson on Joan of Arc.  

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