The Passion of Dolssa starts in 1290 in what would now be considered Southern France where a friar is gathering documents and testimonials to prove that the inquisitions were the work of God. He comes across a tale which begins to bother him and he starts to piece together the stories of a young mystic, Dolssa, and a girl, Botille, and her sisters. He decides to piece together their tale and will burn the research once he is done. He discovers that Dolssa had such a loving relationship with God that she couldn't help but share this love with her neighbors. Instead of embracing Dolssa for her devotion to God, the church decided to have her executed for heresy. Dolssa escaped and was saved from detection by Botille and her sisters, who sheltered her in their little pub by the sea. But the friar, and others working for the church continued their hunt for Dolssa and she was not safe for long.
Everything about The Passion of Dolssa seems correct even down to use of words from Old Provençal, the language spoken in that part of the world in the 1200s. The story is told from the point of view of several narrators with Botille, Dolssa, the friar, a knight, a common laborer each carrying part of the story forward. Through these many narrators Berry is able to convey the message of how good ideas taken to an extreme can turn into nightmares. We certainly are seeing the same theme repeated today with extremist religious followers conducting terrorism in God's name. Even though the topic sounds extremely serious there were lighthearted and funny moments in the book which made the other more serious parts bearable. There is even a twist near the end of the book which I didn't see coming.
I loved The Passion of Dolssa, even though I spent nearly an hour crying as I read its concluding pages. This book has everything that is wonderful about literature and makes the time spent reading worth it. I learned about a time period and place I'd known nothing about. I didn't know that a particular crusade, Albigensian Crusade, led to the beginning of this inquisition. (I actually went and read up on it in Wikipedia!) The author said that she created Dolssa as a composite of several saints and mystics like Catherine of Siena and Bernadette of Lourdes. For some reason unknown to all, the leaders of the church would embrace some mystics of the day and eventually saint them, while others, like our Dolssa, would be threatened with execution. Historical fiction is at its best when it helps to cast a light on the past so the reader can understand what is happening today. This book does this in spades.
I listened to the audiobook read by Jane Entwistle, Allan Corduner, and Fiona Hardingham. I have heard one other book read by Jane Entwistle, The Flavia Du Luce series, so I was a bit distracted by the comparisons. If you know those stories, Flavia is a plucky young girl who sets out to solve mysteries in her home town and does it by irritating people along the way. Jane read the parts of Botille, who does provide the comic moments in this book, so I found myself conflating the two characters, Botille and Flavia. I'm sure the book publishers would be horrified to learn this since the two storylines are so different.
When I was casting about trying to decide how to start this review I stumbled upon this excellent article about possible YA summer selections written by Marjorie Ingall for the NYT. The Passion of Dolssa was one of the books she highlighted. I loved what she said in her concluding paragraph about the book,
The language is gorgeous and evocative without seeming to try too hard. You practically smell the sea and taste the foamy ale. The characters have clearly differentiated voices; Dolssa sounds fancy and stilted for much of the book, while the sisters sound like the funny, earthy wenches they are. I cried partly because of the matter-of-fact kindness of the sisters — they care for others because it’s the moral thing to do — and partly because of the parallels to our country now. There’s a difference between being Christ-like and using Christ’s name to oppress others, to silence women and persecute immigrants. I’m not sure how big an audience there is for a book like this. But I found it magnificent. (NYT, June 1, 2016)This is the twelfth YA book I've read so far this year and the first I think is a real Printz contender. I am not sure this is the book for every student. It certainly has a serious subject matter and it a tome, weighing in at nearly 500 pages, which will scare some readers off. But the Printz Award is not based on popularity so I predict it will make it on or at least near the podium this year. Wait and see. And in the meantime, read The Passion of Dolssa yourself and let me know what you think.
2017 Printz Award Contenders
12 / 35 books. 34% done!