Title: The Maid
Author: Kimberly Cutter
Genre: historical fiction
Pages: 304 (NetGalley uncorrected ARC)
Published: expected October 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Joan of Arc is a far-famed and widely recognized name, especially if you're a. Catholic or b. French. As a rebel, as a saint, and even as a peasant, this young girl captivated an entire country, following her 'voices' and fighting the English for freedom. Taglined with "the girl who led an army, the peasant who crowned a King, the maid who became a legend," Cutter sets the stage for her version of the world famous knight right from the get-go. I did have to do some reading up on the Hundred Years War during and after reading this because a few details were blurry in my memory and I wanted to check the validity of the events in this novel (medieval France is not exactly my historical forte.) Happily, and incredulously I might say, I found much of this novel to be factually correct, all the while maintaining a snarled plot and a brisk pace. Even the most incredible events from the book are recorded as fact (Jehanne's predictions of a defeat at Rouvray, telling Charles "Use me. I will last little more than a year,") and Cutter does a fine job of meshing the facts of the past with her interpretation of the person. She also steers clear of the inane repetition of titles and names of the nobility that some other historical fiction authors cannot seem to avoid. I thought that this was a well-told tale, and Ms. Cutter a more than able storyteller. Never dry, or dull, I was swept up in the story from beginning until the end and her Jehanne (the accurate name for Joan) is more than believable: she is three-dimensional and vibrant.
The story is told by Jehanne herself, explaining her life up to capture by the English to her seemingly sympathetic jailer in a brisk, almost unfeeling reminisce. With the Hundred Years War raging from 1337 (before her death) until 1453 (twenty years after her execution), Jehanne begins and lives her entire life directly in the tumult of this dynastic warfare, and it leaves a lasting impression on the girl. With the third person perspective in use Cutter is deftly able to weave a complete - and devastating - picture of life in English-controlled France. And it is a harsh, unyielding picture full of mostly misery. With the external pressures of a mad father, a murdered sister and a devastated country, it is not hard to see why she turned to prayer for solace and then began to hear voices. Though The Maid plays the voices as if they are actual saints (Michael, Catherine and Margaret to be specific), it is not hackneyed element nor a podium from which Jehanne preaches. I did find the pet names from the saints to Jehanne a bit off ("cabbage" and "darling"? I could see "lamb" I suppose, as in lamb of God, but it wasn't used) and it threw me when one of the three would reference Jehanne with one of them. Jehanne was also never full of herself, simply stating she was "a lamp in which God had chosen to burn for a short time." Her humility rang true, and remained the forefront of personality for the duration.
Moving at a brisk pace, the novel shows Jehanne through five parts, divided by age or events within. Jehanne's early life was surprisingly compelling for a peasant in medieval France, and Cutter shed light and personality upon the mostly-historically-ignored family that brought Jehanne into the world. The abduction and murder of her sister Catherine at the hands of the "Goddons" (English), though one of the fabricated events, served as a nice foreshadowing of Jehanne's future treatment by the same nation, and also served to explain more of Jehanne's reasons for her calling. Her relationship with her father was severely troubled, a symptom that reappears in almost all Jehanne's later interactions with men and possibly the reason for such issues in the first place. Jehanne is shown to be a full, complete person: she doesn't survive of religious fervor. The author took care to craft a well-rounded personality who can feel and express doubt and fear instead of an unfeeling zealot: her latent feelings and romance with the Duke of Alencon, her struggles with violence, and even nostalgia from home.. these are all problems with which Jehanne must wrestle and overcome. Jehanne grows into herself: from a shy girl turned away from the dauphin, she becomes a ferocious general, dealing with insubordination and mistrust with ease. Cutter does an admirable job of showing a human side to a saint venerated for her supreme piety. Slowly, her Jehanne is revealed as a woman that is much admired, but sadly not liked within her support base.
Jehanne represents much more than just resistance from the English. She took a dynastic struggle lasting decades between nobles and kings and made it about the country itself. She is a living symbol of the peasantry, fighting for their freedom rather than a King defending his inherited lands. While her prowess at Orleans could be laid at the feet of "surprise", I tend to think Jehanne's natural abilities were the cause. The excellently described, gory battle scenes were a high point for the novel as well: each seemed alive and different than the preceding fight, practically thrumming with excitement and action. All in all, this version of Jehanne was utterly compelling and engaging. Though the end cut off before her execution, the timing was perfect. It felt like the end; there was no need to
see read her execution at the hands of the English. A nicely well-rounded and plotted historical fiction, alive with tension and fear... this was one of the better historical fictions I've read so far this year. More than enjoyable, and though not astounding, The Maid is a great historical fiction novel for anyone looking into a fun read about Joan of Arc.