Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured

By Kathryn Harrison

(Knopf Doubleday, $28.95, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

Kathryn Harrison has several novels, nonfiction books and memoirs to her credit, among them a biography, St. Therese of Lisieux, and a true crime book, While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family. Her novels are Thicker Than Water, Exposure, Poison, The Binding Chair, The Seal Wife, and Envy and Enchantments. She is well-known for her powerful but disturbing memoir, The Kiss, about her incestuous affair with her father, who left the family when she was an infant and did not see her again until she was 20. California-born, she now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, author Colin Harrison, and their children. She frequently writes reviews for the New York Times Book Review.

What is this book about?

Joan of Arc, who lived, albeit briefly, in the 15th century, made a huge impact on her times and has been a figure of mystery and inspiration ever since. But was she a mystic, a schizophrenic, possessed by demons or just a brave and courageous young woman who led the French in battle against invaders from England at the behest of “voices” that she alone could hear, and for her efforts was burned at the stake at age 19 (and later canonized)? Harrison explores historical fact, myth, folklore and scholarly research on this unusual young woman whose life inspired writings by such authors as William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht and others.

Why you’ll like it:

Joan of Arc, known as the Maid of Orleans, is one of those historical figures that we think we know all about, but in fact, her story is far more complex than popular mythologized or movie versions of her life present. Was she divinely inspired, a tool of the devil or simply (if such a thing is ever simple) insane? Scholars have pored over her life for centuries without ever resolving these questions, but Harrison does a fine job of recounting the various theories and arriving at her own conclusions. While this is a biography meant for adult readers, younger (and older) fans of such genre fiction as The Hunger Games and its heroine Katniss Everdeen might find the story of a real young female warrior even more compelling.

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “The versatile Harrison novelist, biographer, memoirist and true-crime writer—becomes the most recent in a long list of authors to tell the story of the unusual warrior. Born in 1412 and executed just 19 years later, French peasant Joan of Arc began listening to the voices of angels at age 14 (“hers alone, a rapturous secret”). She did not suspect at first, nor did anybody else, that those angels wanted her to undertake a seemingly impossible task: to lead an army of Frenchmen into battle against the mighty enemy forces from across the channel in England. The tale of Joan of Arc has been told countless times, so why revisit it, especially when hard evidence is lacking? For starters, Harrison’s editor suggested the topic. At that point, the author decided 21st century readers required a new narrative of a life so improbable and heroic. Harrison knew, of course, about the daunting list of previous interpreters, including William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht and Mark Twain. She wisely examines some of those previous interpretations, finding some of the speculation and historicism plausible but some of it wanting. Harrison examines Joan as a sexual being as well as a warrior and perhaps a schizophrenic. The sexuality angle becomes especially provocative when Harrison discusses how God may have favored Joan due to the virginity she advertised so boldly. The author recounts the battle scenes in sometimes-excruciating detail and gives plenty of space to her arrest, trial and execution. She also provides a chronology. The vivid stories of Joan’s remarkable life never died completely, leading to her canonization as a saint in 1920. Harrison joins the psychobiography school of life writing, doing so with memorable writing and an energetic approach.”

“It is impossible for Harrison to write an uninteresting book. She is too skilled a prose writer, too good a storyteller, too alert to passions and the human heart to produce a work that ever flags. But read Joan of Arc for what it tells you about the world in which the subject lived and the half-millennium of culture that has continued to mythologize her. In this striking volume, it is clear that Joan fell victim to more than an era’s intolerance. She became a victim to other dreamers’ dreams,” says Marie Arana inThe Washington Post.

“[Harrison] awes us with her incisive intelligence, her fierce curiosity, her literary prowess. These qualities, along with years of meticulous research, are on stunning display in Harrison’s latest work of nonfiction, which focuses, fittingly, on two aspects of the cross-dressing teenaged warrior: her sanity, and her sexuality. Harrison sets the scene, painting a layered portrait not only of Joan’s life, but of her times,” says The Boston Globe.

Booklist says: “…In novelist [Kathryn] Harrison’s deft hands, the latest analysis is both vividly detailed and historically grounded. Casting a modern eye on a medieval legend, she is able to breathe new life into the girl, the warrior, the messenger from God, and the saint. In addition to Joan’s early years and her fiery path to battle, Harrison also includes Joan’s trials, execution, and canonization in the compulsively readable narrative.”

“Hundreds of books have been written about her, but the story remains astounding enough for new interpretations. Kathryn Harrison, the well-known author of novels, memoirs and a previous biography of a saint, has now taken up the challenge with the deeply researched and thoughtful Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured…. Harrison shows that Joan’s worst crime in their eyes was her revolutionary audacity in dressing and behaving like a man. Of course, the ultimate victory was hers,” says Bookpage.

When is it available?

It’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour and Blue Hills branches.

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