Notwithstanding the remarkable youth of the historical Joan of Arc, I wouldn’t have automatically assumed her a ready subject for a middle grade novel. Of course it’s impossible not to admire her courage and determination, and I recognize that she must be considered in the context of her times. But let’s just say that her story has the potential to be a little … troubling.
For starters there are the voices. Not that I don’t believe in visions, but the question of whether God would employ them for the defense of a European monarch has always raised doubts in my mind. Then there’s the fact that Joan was leading armies into battle, which inevitably involves violence. And then there’s the ending: she gets burned at the stake. That alone was enough to make me a reluctant reader.
So when I picked up Girl at Arms, I intended to merely peruse a few scattered excerpts in anticipation of featuring Jaye Bennett at an author lunch at my bookshop. Before I knew it, I was several chapters in, and I realized that my husband would likely enjoy the book as well, so we backed up and started over together.
Bennett doesn’t gloss over the difficulties, but she does make them manageable for younger readers. Supernatural visitations and miraculous signs, while certainly rare enough to gain Joan a following, seem to have been more readily accepted in the 15th century than now. (Granted these were what eventually got her burned at the stake, but it was not because her detractors had come up with naturalistic explanations for the phenomena.) Bennett reports these potentially problematic events without much fanfare, as unavoidable links in the chain of events and circumstances that led Joan down the path to her destiny.
As Bennett conveys the political and social situation of the day, the reader becomes convinced along with Joan that someone needed to do something. Since no one else seemed to be stepping up, it seems less incredible that a teenage girl in her right mind might take it upon herself to demand action (aided by a sense of divine appointment). To be sure, Bennett acknowledges that this was highly irregular, and the position of women at the time only makes her accomplishments the more astonishing.
I am not well versed in the history of the times, and I had a little difficulty following the political and military operations (my husband seemed to follow these more readily, so I think the problem was with my comprehension rather than the writing). But Bennett appears to have thoroughly researched the movements and activities of the various players–monarchs, general, earls, knights, and so forth, French, English and Burgundian. I’m not sure to what degree young readers will follow these movements, but it might not matter too much if they don’t catch all the details. Bennett weaves them smoothly into the more engrossing story of Joan and her fate.
The battle scenes are appropriately grim without being gory. There’s no escaping, however, the horror of Joan’s sad and lonely end. Bennett delivers it with realism yet delicacy, without lingering over the details.
Bennett’s work succeeds as a young adult novel partly because of Erich, the orphan-turned-knight, whose story parallels and then intersects with Joan’s. His presence allows us to focus on and celebrate a character who survives, grows, and, eventually, overcomes.
I am sufficiently impressed with Bennett’s skill with words and plot to recommend her book to some of the more demanding young readers of my acquaintance. I also appreciate her ability to fold spiritual elements into a 15th-century setting in a way that is relevant for contemporary readers without being anachronistic. I would recommend Girl at Arms for lovers of historical fiction over the age of ten or twelve, depending on youngsters’ ability to handle themes related to death. On an entirely prosaic note, the price of $9.95 makes the book very affordable. It is available on Amazon, from Royal Fireworks Press, and at The Book Nest.
Individuals living in the Eugene, OR, area have the opportunity to have lunch with Bennett at noon on Thursday, Nov. 6, at The Book Nest. For address and other details, visit our Facebook page: The Book Nest on Facebook.