Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint by Donald Spoto

Mark Twain did not see himself as a religious man, and yet he was still captivated by the story of Joan of Arc. I share in Twain’s fascination, and I’ve read a handful of accounts about the Maid of Orleans over the years. Some were in the larger context of the Hundred Years War, others were varying accounts trying to distinguish if Joan was just psychotic or not. Up until this particular biography, I’ve felt like the only account to actually attempt to understand Joan within her own time and circumstances was the historical fiction account that Twain himself wrote.

This book is quite possibly the most fair and balanced account of Joan I’ve ever had the privilege to read. Instead of dismissing claims as “it could not happen, therefore it didn’t,” Spoto instead looks at the facts and tries to make sense of them in more broad strokes. He compares Joan’s story with Biblical stories and alongside religious figures ranging from Jesus to Mohammed to Buddha, pointing out the parallel themes and ideas. He tries to offer explanations that toe the line between the mystical and the simply human, and to my mind he walks that tightrope quite admirably. It’s a completely new paradigm that explores the tale in terms of how it would appear to those in 15th century France and dares to suggest that, regardless of what your own spiritual background may or may not be, there is indeed something special about one called Joan of Arc.

5 stars

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