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IN BRIEF

Fiction

August 04, 1996|ERIKA TAYLOR

POPE JOAN by Donna Cross (Crown: $25, 432 pp.). No one knows for sure if Pope Joan, or Pope John Anglicus as she called herself, really existed. During her lifetime, 814-855, record-keeping was scanty at best, and there seems to be evidence both for and against Joan's papacy. After finishing Donna Cross' novelization of Joan's life, one may want her to be a real person, only because it is so gratifying to read about those rare heroes whose strength of vision enables them to ignore the almost overpowering messages of their own historical periods.

Ever since she was a child, Cross' Joan had an intellectual curiosity so powerful it could not be beaten out of her by her father nor successfully repressed by her mother. She learned to read and write, almost unheard of for a girl in medieval times. It wasn't until the death of her brother in a Viking attack that Joan was finally able to seize control of her own life. Taking on his identity, she became a brilliant Christian scholar, advisor to the pope and, finally, the pope herself.

"Pope Joan" has all the elements one generally wants in a historical drama: love, sex, violence, duplicity and long-buried secrets. Cross has written an engaging, highly commercial book.

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