Friday, April 24, 2020

Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc by David Elliott

I've never really had much of an interest in Joan of Arc. I knew who she was, of course, and what she had done, thanks to a hand-me-down Classic Illustrated Comics collection. And I did go see Saint Joan with Condola Rashad on Broadway, which was excellent. But that was basically it...until I read Voices. WOW! Here was a book that blew me away from the first poem to the last.

In Voices: the Final Hours of Joan of Arc, David Elliott offers readers an amazing perspective on the life and final moments of this courageous young woman (she was, after all, still a teenager when she died). In well-crafted and carefully constructed, often visceral poems, Elliott begins Joan's story at the end of her life, as she is tied to a stake, about to be burned alive as a traitor. He then recreates Joan's life, beginning with her visions through to her military triumph of restoring Charles VIII to power, his ultimate betrayal of her, her subsequent trials, and finally, her execution. Throughout this fictionalized biography in verse, Elliott has carefully and consciously chosen the voices who gets to tell her story besides Joan herself.

 The poems are amazing. The language is affective without being sentimental. There is energy in Elliott's choice of line breaks, coming at just the right time to maintain the lyricism and musicality of each poem - in other words, the lines are neither too long nor too short.

The imagery that each of the poems creates is clear and fresh; there is a specificity of detail in each poem, and provides the reader with imaginative sensory details without being overwhelming.

And Elliott created these images that tell Joan's story using a variety of poetic forms, some dating back to the medieval period, along with a diversity of voices besides Joan. Some of these voices include that of Charles VIII, her father, even personification of objects close to Joan, including her sword, her armor, the crossbow that wounded her and the fire that is so lovingly consuming her.

Elliott has also made effective use of direct prose quotes from the transcripts of Joan's trials. He has creatively recounted the life of Joan of Arc in a somewhat three dimensional sense, not an easy accomplishment in a book, allowing the reader to look at all sides of Joan's story and to draw their own conclusions as to her guilt or innocence.

And Elliot does all this while interrogating ideas about Joan's gender identity, her class, her decision to be a knight instead of a peasant girl remaining on the family farm until she marries, as well as her innocence in view of the politics of the time and the reason for the guilty verdict at her trial.

Elliott has taken a medieval heroine, caught up in the politics of her day, and brought her into the 21st century where her story will definitely resonate with today's readers.

Small wonder that Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc won the Claudia Lewis Award for poetry awarded by the Bank Street Children's Book Committee. Sadly, the Coronavirus meant canceling our awards ceremony this year. However, David Elliott was kind enough to send us a video recording, which you can also enjoy:

This book is recommended for readers age 13+
This book was an ARC gratefully received from publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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