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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

“Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured”, by Kathryn Harrison


382 pages, Doubleday, ISBN-13: 978-0385531207

Disappointing Feminist claptrap. I will admit up front that finishing this book was difficult in that I found Kathryn Harrison’s viewpoint and conclusions to be tendentious in the extreme, especially after reading the footnote restating the leftist absurdity that jihad does not mean a religious war waged on behalf of Islam, but instead refers to a Muslim’s quest for spiritual uplift, but I powered through, Dear Reader, for your benefit. Sometimes a fiction author (like Harrison) can make the leap to writing good history, but this author is not one of them. In brief, I would characterize this book as a combination of a biography of Joan of Arc and of Kathryn Harrison’s worldview, merged together into some kind of bastard-child-of-a-book. Either on their own could arguably have been worthwhile, but together it is kind of a bait-and-switch for those looking to read a biography of Joan of Arc, and only a biography of Joan of Arc. Harrison interweaves her modern day personal opinions and today’s cultural morals into a book set in the 15th Century and then proceeds to judge those people from the 15th Century against her modern sensibilities (guess how well they fare). I learned about the Frame of Reference – *ahem* “a set of criteria or stated values in relation to which measurements or judgments can be made” – way back while still an undergrad, so I’m not sure how Harrison missed this basic tenant of historical study, but then again one gets the feeling that whether she missed it or not in class that day that is not the point of her deciding to write this book (and she must have taken a History class sometime in her life, what with her Bachelor in English and Art History from Stanford and Master of Fine Arts from Iowa). This isn’t your mother’s or grandmother’s equal pay for equal work feminism, but one focused on misogyny, male oppression of women, the perceived anti-woman evils of the Catholic Church, and sex/gender blurred lines. While any or all of these may have some value in a biography of Joan of Arc, they are presented here in a way that comes across awkwardly and with very little back-up other than the author’s personally held 21st Century views. If that is your thing when reading history then perhaps this will be enjoyable, but if you are looking for a captivating biography of one of history’s most fascinating women then I’d recommend you pass on this one.

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