Wanna meet my new friend? Pope Joan is her name...
“For a thousand years, men have denied her existence – Pope Joan, the woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to rule Christianity for two years. Now this compelling novel animates the legend with a portrait of an unforgettable woman who struggles against restrictions her soul cannot accept.”
That is the first paragraph on the back cover of the novel I am now reading. Joan, who took the name of Brother John Anglicus after her brother died and she assumed his identity, is one of the most remarkable characters I’ve ever met between the covers of a book. Her first teacher, Aesculapius, challenged her to continue with her studies, to not allow her gender to be used against her in her intellectual pursuits, but above all, he warned her to be careful not to push her father beyond the narrow limits of his temper by asking what he called her “dangerous questions.” It was, in fact, her relentless pursuit of knowledge that drove her father to inflict permanent stripes on her adolescent back and permanent scars on her eternal soul. After one particularly humiliating incident, Joan ran away from home. The journey towards the Papal throne of Rome began one dark night in the faraway forest of the fictional country of Frankland.
Over the course of the next thirty years, Joan was whipped, beaten, entrapped, and betrayed because she never stopped asking dangerous questions. She developed a reputation for helping the sick and downtrodden, for outwitting all who dared to oppose her in debate, and for standing up for herself no matter what punishment she faced. Needless to say, Joan is my hero. Oh, that there were more like her in the world today.
Early in the book I knew that this young woman and I would have been great friends as children. The narrator describes her turmoil: “What was it in her that would not let go of her impossible dreams? Everyone told her that her desire to learn was unnatural. Yet she thirsted for knowledge, yearned to explore the larger world of ideas and opportunities that was open to people of learning. The other girls in the village had no such interest… They were as inexplicable to Joan as she was to them. ‘Why am I different?’ she wondered. ‘What is wrong with me?’”
If I had kept a journal as a young girl, I’m sure I would have written those words over and over. In my unruly cursive letters, I would have penned, “Why am I so different? Why doesn’t anyone else like the things I like? Why doesn’t anyone else seem as interested in how the world works as I am?” countless times. In elementary school, I stood at the edge of the school yard during recess and gazed through the fence wondering where all the people were going as they walked and drove past. I gazed at my incomprehensibly interesting teachers wondering what glorious secrets they held in their plan books, closets, and desk drawers. The principal’s office was one of my favorite places to go because I got to ask Miss Porter all kinds of questions about how she made operated the intercom system, signed all the report cards, and ran the school. The bus drivers were never safe from me either; I wanted to know what time they started in the morning, when they got home, where the bus depot was, and whether or not they minded all my questions. The church organist had to explain every pedal and stop and peg. The pastor had to explain how the water got into the baptistery, where it came from, and what happened to it after the baptism service was over.
The local library however, was my absolute favorite place in the world. The school library was fine in a pinch, but the Grand Army Plaza Library in Brooklyn, New York was as sacred to me as St. Peter’s Basilica is to any Roman Catholic. The soaring ceiling, the columns of granite, the sculpted stairs and entryway, and those illuminated, illustrated, well-guarded volumes were the stuff of legends, epiphanies, and could only be properly honored by bowing down in worship. I used to love asking for books that were held in the vault below ground because I could watch the dumbwaiter descend to the bowels of the vaults of knowledge and ascend with some juicy and satisfying morsel for my insatiably ravenous soul. Plus the number board behind the call desk was lit up in a really cool way. I would open the hundreds of drawers in the card catalog just to flip through those tiny manila cards, breathe in that glorious fine paper smell, and marvel at the titles of all the books I’d never get to read.
It was at that library that I first swooned to the strains of Europe’s finest classical music. I remember clearly how the reference librarian would look at me with a slightly annoyed grimace every time I handed her another fistful of requests for records. She warned me against scratching the records. She needn’t have worried; those albums were as precious to me as any of heaven’s golden harps. But when I was feeling most devilish, I’d spin the revolving rack of romance novels, grab the one with the steamiest scene on the cover, and find a quiet carrel to hide it while I flipped through it looking for words like “heaving bosoms, bulging manhood, and rapturous sighs” and read on from there. I’m sure Joan of Frankland neither read nor translated anything in that genre from Latin into Greek.
These days I find myself still asking many of those same old questions. Why cannot I not let go of my impossible dream of living overseas someday? Why am I so consumed with reading and writing and travel when so many people I know are barely making it through their days, falling into bed completely exhausted at night, and apparently making no time to do much dreaming at all? When people ask me if I will ever send my children to school and go back to work, how do I get them to understand that there is no work that is more important to me than teaching and raising my children to be as unquenchable in their thirst for knowledge, as untamable in their fierce pursuit of excellence, and as unwilling to back down from a good debate as their mother? Who has time for hours of television every night when the library still has vaults of books in the basement below that have yet to be read? Just last week, I had ten items on hold for me at the library, and a few more “in transit.” Two of the librarians have said to me that they were glad to finally put a face to the name they write so often on the hold sheets that they slip into each reserved book. I know I cannot possibly read all of the books I bring home, but I pray to die trying.
I have not yet finished reading Pope Joan. Nor am I finished with Lily’s Crossing, the next book in the mother-daughter reading series Kristiana and I have embarked upon, or any of the three books on writing that are cleaved with postcards and other paraphernalia that serve as bookmarks for me. However, I suspect that my focus this week will be on Pope Joan. Not only is it next week’s required reading for my book group, but also it is the story of a woman I’d love to have known, a woman whose courage I wish I had, and a woman whose love of the library is even greater than mine. That’s truly a novel concept.