The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry. Viking, 2016. 978-0-451-4699-2
This a historical YA novel that was named both a Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults and a Printz Award Honor Book by the American Library Association. The title character is a well-born young lady in 13th century Provensa who becomes a Catholic mystic. But this book is not really about Dolssa, but about Botille, a not so well-born young woman living in a small village on the coast where she and her sisters run a tavern. Dolssa escapes being burned for heresy and is discovered, weak and injured, by Botille. Even though her younger sister, who is a bit of a fortune teller, warns her of danger, Botille decides to help this stranger, who is still being hunted by the Church.
One of the things I love most about historical fiction is the way a good novel can immerse you in another time and place. This is not a generic medieval landscape, this is late 13th century Provensa, an area of France where even today many people speak not French but Occitan. Berry provides enough explanation to give 21st century readers a grasp of what life was like in that time, but enough is left to the exotic Old Provencal words sprinkled throughout the narrative to let us know this is a different world than our own. She also provides some back matter on the history of the region, especially the Albigensian Crusade, which took place not long before the action in the book begins.
Dolssa is a pious woman who speaks to her Beloved (Jesus) and performs several miracles throughout the book. Ranged against her are the inquisitors of the Church, just as pious but convinced that they must defend their flocks against heresy, even if that means destroying women like Dolssa. This novel raises questions about the role of organized religion in society and the conflict between personal faith and institutional dogma. To our modern eyes, Dolssa and Botille do nothing wrong; in fact, they do much good. But to the orthodox medieval eye, they challenged the authority of the Church and therefore the word of God. Everyone in this story believes he or she is doing the right thing, and almost every action is done in Jesus’ name.
Who is right and who is wrong? This is question we still struggle to answer today.