November 2011

The faith and valor of Joan of Arc

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No, it’s not a sequel to The Help. “The Maid” in question in Kimberly Cutter’s debut novel is Jehanne, Joan of Arc, and this beautifully conceptualized story of her few years of glory puts flesh and blood on the long-stereotyped image, giving readers an unexpected shiver of connection with a mostly forgotten icon.

In the 15th century, when the only way a woman could make a difference in public life was through religious exceptionalism, Jehanne’s guiding spirits—Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret and Michael the Archangel—empowered this 17-year-old peasant who was “unschooled, simple as a thumb,” instructing her in what God expected her to do. But sainthood is not an easy road, and the terms are never quite clear.

Cutter limns the development of a saint about as well as a person who presumably isn’t one can: the beyond-life experiences, the beyond-death dreams, the beyond-endurance reality. “She could feel the Godhead growing inside her now . . . like a secret plant. . . . Feeding her and feeding off of her . . . she knew that the winds were with her and the stars in the night sky . . . that holy waters were coursing through her veins and ancient caves of knowledge were yawning open inside her skull, and she loved God then in a way she never would again, for her love was the naïve, untested love of a new bride—perfumed and dreamlike. Blind as a mole.” Somehow that last dry phrase seems to capture the ultimate riddle of sainthood in a way that more idealistic comments might not, although Cutter does not attempt to solve it, only imagine it.

Eventually, Jehanne, trying to take back the town of Margny with precious little (that is, no) help from her God-designated hero, King Charles VII, is captured by the Burgundians, turned over to the English and meets her famous fate in Rouen.

“More books have been written about Joan of Arc than any other woman in history,” admits Cutter (a writer for Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair, among other publications), but the quality of The Maid justifies the author’s decision to add yet another to the list. Multiplying the dimensions of understanding of what it must be like to be subjected to theophany, Cutter has produced an exaltedly down-to-earth account of the kind of experience most readers will never have—and afterward maybe, deep down, they’ll be grateful about that.

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