Saint Joan of New York, Part One

By Mark Alpert

One of the most popular thriller plotlines runs like this: A character with hidden talents or untapped potential confronts an extraordinary challenge and rises to the occasion. The epic struggle transforms the character and perhaps changes the world as well.

That’s the story of Moses, Jesus, and many other biblical figures. It’s also the story of ancient Greek heroes such as Perseus, Theseus, and Orpheus. In modern literature, it’s the story of Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Tom Joad, and Harry Potter.

In my nine previous novels, I created several characters that fit the same mold: David Swift, Monique Reynolds, Jim Pierce, Sarah Pooley. But when I was looking for ideas for my tenth novel, I decided to focus on the historical figure who best exemplifies this story of trial and triumph. Her name was Jeanne, and she came from the French village of Domrémy, but in English she’s known as Joan of Arc.

She was born in 1412, at a time when France was engaged in a long series of conflicts with England, collectively known as the Hundred Years’ War. Basically, it was a battle over succession. The English royals, descended from the Normans who’d crossed the Channel and conquered most of the island in 1066, had many connections by marriage and blood with the French royals, and in 1340 the English king claimed that he was the rightful heir to the French throne as well. Generations of bloodshed ensued, culminating with the remarkable victory of the English at Agincourt in 1415, which was wonderfully reenacted in Shakespeare’s play “Henry V.” This was a catastrophe for the French, who descended into civil war when the Duke of Burgundy sided with the English. The French royal court and their uncrowned Dauphin, Charles VII, retreated to the central part of the country while the English occupied most of the north (including Paris) and laid siege to Orléans, the last French stronghold on the Loire River.

Meanwhile, the teenage Jeanne was starting to have her holy visions. Her region of eastern France had been devastated by warfare and banditry. She claimed that while she was tending her family’s sheep, three key figures of medieval Christianity appeared to her — Saint Margaret, Saint Catherine, and the archangel Michael. Over the course of several visitations, she said, they gave her the mission of driving the English out of France and crowning Charles VII at the cathedral city of Reims (which was then under Anglo-Burgundian control).

Jeanne was an illiterate peasant, with no military training whatsoever, but she eagerly accepted her divine mission. At the age of 16, she convinced a relative to take her to the nearby town of Vaucouleurs, where there was a French garrison. She met with Robert de Baudricourt, the garrison commander, and asked him to help her travel to the French royal court in the central town of Chinon. De Baudricourt immediately dismissed her and sent her back to Domrémy, but she returned to Vaucouleurs the next year, and this time she somehow managed to convince the commander to provide her with an armed escort to Chinon. It was the first of Jeanne’s many triumphs, which remain mysterious and awe-inspiring to this day.

The mystery drew me to her story. It perfectly dramatizes the old conflict between faith and doubt. During the Middle Ages, there was a broader acceptance of supernatural visions; the bigger question back then was whether Jeanne’s instructions had come from God or the devil. Nowadays, we’re more inclined to see Jeanne as delusional, but if neither God nor Satan inspired her, what did? Where did this uneducated seventeen-year-old find the military talents and charisma to take command of the French army? And after she was finally captured by her enemies, where did she find the strength to endure her trial and execution?

I’ve tried to tackle these questions by writing a modern-day retelling of Jeanne’s story. The result is SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK, which will be published by Springer in January. I’ll reveal more about the novel over the next few weeks, but if you’re interested in reading the first chapter, you can find it here.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

11 thoughts on “Saint Joan of New York, Part One

  1. Sigh.

    There are several implicit logical fallacies in this piece, notably, Argument from Ignorance, False Dichotomy et al, in other words, the usual irrational fare some seem unable or unwilling to escape from when arguing their political or religious case.

    When one sees fiction not as an end to itself but rather as a mere tool, a “cautionary tale” they might call it, to attain certain political goals or to carry out religious proselytism, the end result is generally not that great art. The reason is straightforward: if the priority funnels around using the novel as a political or religious manifesto, instead of taking Art for Art’s sake, then, naturally, politically or religiously-motivated choices will take precedence over any other concerns.

    This debate has been going on for centuries and seems to have peaked during the 19th century in Europe, around Romanticism and the distinction between pure and programmatic music. But look no further than to the 20th century for a panorama of the deeply equivocated mindset that regards art as a mere vehicle for political propaganda, on both sides of the ideological aisle.

    So why do some use novels as vehicles for political and religious propaganda? For starters, by doing so they attempt to circumvent
    what they surely regard as the pesky epistemological requirements of a proper philosophical debate. In a proper philosophical debate, one’s logical fallacies will be called out. In a novel, the author might see himself as sheltered from any form of factual criticism. In a proper philosophical debate, if one claims God exists, the Devil existes, visions exist, the paranormal exists, God intervenes in human affairs, etc., then the burden of proof is on them to present evidence substantiating those claims. In a novel, the author can always shrug, retreat and appeal to the caveat of it being just a novel. And because some seem totally unequipped to meet those basic but nevertheless strict requirements, uncapable or unwilling to meet those standards, they opt for the fictionalized route. They do write a novel.

    Usually, the result is C-grade art and D-grade philosophy.
    Art is not a lower grade substitute for political or religious activism.
    Art is an end to itself.
    Do not settle for anything inferior.

    Some of the people telling you otherwise are often capable of the feat of cramming several logical fallacies into one short paragraph, while not being particularly helpful at teaching craft.

    Reject the subservience of Art.

    • So, you’re saying “I don’t believe in God, and I’m much smarter than you are because I use big words so I must be right.”

      First, rude. So rude. And uncalled for. Also, wrong platform for your rant. I doubt anyone here cares since we are talking about writing, not whether we believe in God. And, no, I will not argue with you because I don’t argue with rude trolls.

      • >So, you’re saying “I don’t believe in God, and I’m much smarter than you are because I use big words so I must be right.”

        No, I am saying what I am saying, which can be read in full here, instead of saying what some would rather have me say in order to prove their misguided point.

        Additionally, what I am saying applies equally to both sides of the argument, any argument, really. That’s why I explicitly said “both sides of the ideological aisle”.

        >First, rude. So rude.

        I didn’t call anyone a “rude troll”.
        Please notice the difference.

        >And uncalled for.

        You’re certainly entitled to your opinion and welcome to express it.

        Please know others are equally entitled to theirs, especially when they are willing to detail why they think the way they do.

        > Also, wrong platform for your rant.

        Me explaining why I think the way I do is a rant but name-calling, “rude troll”, and refusing to explain oneself isn’t a rant?

        Seems unbiased.

        > I doubt anyone here cares since we are talking about writing

        That’s exactly my point.
        Exactly.

        >, not whether we believe in God.

        At no point did I engage in a discussion on the existence of God. At no point did I express belief or disbelief in God. My whole point is that such discussion is beside the point.

        I am not interested in that discussion here. More importantly, that is not the goal of TKZ blog.

        >And, no, I will not argue with you because I don’t argue with rude trolls.

        And the above isn’t a rant and the “rude troll” among us are those not resorting to name-calling and explaining themselves.

        Right.

    • If you’ve read any of Mr. Alpert’s books you’d probably be aware that this one will have as much, if not more, to do with string theory than it will with god.

  2. I enjoyed reading the historical details you included in your post about Joan, Mark, and will give your chapter a read. Now I’m curious to learn how good she turned out to be at executing a military strategy. Putting your book on my TBR list, plus I may add add some nonfiction books about her to add context.

  3. Sounds like a wonderful novel, Mark. Good luck with it. Saint Joan was such an interesting character where everything about her was against her, yet she succeeded only to fall at the hands of a bunch of arrogant, greedy jerks.

    Most thrillers, suspense novels, and lots of fantasies have a main character I call “the manly man.” He’s as smart as he is strong, kind as he is brave, protective of the weak, and often snarky. Somehow, this common man is thrown into an adventure, and he has all the right abilities or tools to win. The Dick Francis hero is my perfect example in a suspense novel. In other words, the perfect wish-fulfillment character for most readers.

  4. Your first chapter is intriguing, Mark. And you could probably come up with a brand new series (at least one book) based on the friar you met. I’m looking forward to reading more of Joan’s story.

  5. I’m sighing for good reasons. A nice sigh. A sigh that starts my Sunday morning inspired and eager to read anything you write. I got the feels for the illiterate young peasant Jeanne/Joan on reading your piece – more than years of sitting at a school desk would ever have given me. Thank you.

  6. Who could pass up “A Novel about God and String Theory?” Then I read the first chapter about a girl running a cross country race and realized this book must have been written just for me! 😊

    Looking forward to starting off the new year with this one. Congratulations!

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