Julie Berry’s new novel The Passion of Dolssa intrigued me for many reasons. It is historical fiction; it is set in the Middle Ages; it features a saint-like character; and – most interestingly, given the spiritual subject matter – it is geared towards young adults.
I admit: I’m not a YA reader, much less writer. Perhaps incorrectly, I always assumed that the genre focuses on contemporary issues – like high school and college life – or, alternately, on action, adventure or fantasy.
But in The Passion of Dolssa we have a moving story of faith, courage, friendship and sacrifice set in a long-ago era and in a faraway place that for many readers is mysterious, old-fashioned and perhaps even confusing.
Yet the story works because – like all good stories – it is universal. It may be set in 13th century France and Spain that are in throe of the Holy Inquisition, but the characters’ lives and choices ring true and familiar eight centuries later.
Dolssa is a young woman of deep faith who refers to God as her “beloved” and who preaches love and mercy to the folk still reeling from the devastation of the decades of civil war that was the crusade against the Albigensian heresy. Unfortunately, her preaching is not to the liking of the religious authorities who claim the exclusive right to speak on God’s behalf, and Dolssa becomes a fugitive after narrowly escaping death by burning. On the run, she is pursued by Friar Lucien whose obsession with her goes beyond the desire to preserve dogmatic purity of the Church’s teachings. On the brink exhaustion and starvation, Dolssa is rescued by a trio of sisters who run a tavern in the town of Bajas. But as she begins to perform healing miracles, Dolssa’s fame starts spreading and eventually attracts the attention of Friar Lucien. As the Inquisition closes in on the small town, every resident will have to face a test of character and loyalty.
The narrative has some problems, mainly on the stylistic level. It is told from the alternating viewpoint of several different characters, in the first and the third person, and the switches back and forth can be hard to follow at times. In addition, the author makes liberal use of old Provençal vocabulary, which can be distracting and awkward, especially when used in dialogue.
But the novel’s powerful lessons more than compensate for these drawbacks, and no lesson is more important, for readers in this day and age, than the scathing indictment of extremism and zealotry. It shows their devastating consequences through the experience of the peaceful community that is torn apart when the Inquisition arrives at its door. What follows is the warping of minds by fear that makes otherwise good people betray their loved ones and condemn their neighbors to a certain death.
As such, the book also delivers a hefty dose of history that is extremely relevant today as we face similar forces fueling conflicts in many parts of the world. It is something worth teaching the generation that is just coming of age.