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Book review: 'Passion of Dolssa' explores the lives of medieval religious people

Posted April 25

Author Julie Berry was in the middle of raising her four sons, one of them a newborn baby at the time, when she decided to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree. Writing was her passion, and she decided that she had been taking care of people for so long that it was time to do something for herself.

"It was a lot of work," Berry said of her years in school. "I had four children with very demanding needs. I was very busy, but I was excited and driven to feed my brain and to experience the joy of writing stories."

Prior to this, she worked in software and sales marketing but would squeeze writing into every spare half-hour she had, which was mostly during her kids' naps, preschool and speech therapy sessions.

"Anything you want really badly enough, you will find the time to make it happen," Berry said.

Since those days, she's written a few novels, including "All the Truth That's in Me," which was listed among the School Library Journal Best Books of 2013.

Her most recent young adult novel, "The Passion of Dolssa" (Viking, $18.99, ages 12 and up), was released April 12. The book is set in the 1200s and describes the lives of a group of people in France during the Catholic Crusades.

Dolssa, the protagonist and novel's namesake, is introduced early in the book and is immediately established as a spiritual woman who would go to any lengths to know God better. A friar has labeled her as a heretic, so Dolssa must run for her life. A tavern-keeper and matchmaker named Botille finds Dolssa on the brink of death, takes her in, nurses her back to health and discovers that Dolssa has healing powers. But it becomes clear that neither Dolssa nor Botille is safe from the wrath of the friar and the church.

Berry said she based Dolssa on several medieval mystics, or divine-seekers, who lived during the Middle Ages and were victims of the crusades in southern France.

Berry said the character of Dolssa is alive and real to her, though she was one of the most difficult to write. The woman is seen by some in the book as a heretic and by others as someone who truly communes with God. With these conflicting sides, Berry said, she left it up to the reader to interpret who Dolssa is.

"She was the hardest character to truly embody and the hardest one to present to modern readers because of the foundational view on which her worldview rests," Berry said.

Berry said she feels connected to Dolssa in many senses.

"Dolssa borrows from my own desire to be more like the women on whom she's based," Berry said. "They are single-minded and more singly focused on their devotion and ardor of their love for God."

Berry also developed other interesting characters, including Botille and her two sisters who run a tavern in the city of Bajas. These characters add a lightheartedness and engaging elements to what could have been a more serious storyline.

Berry's descriptions of the characters and their commune with God are respectful and varied, whether given from the perspective of Dolssa, Botille or even the Dominican inquisitors who are after the two. This gives the reader a better understanding of what the different perspectives of deity may have been for those who lived in that era.

Berry did research to give accuracy and content to her book. She even went to France to visit cathedrals, abbeys, libraries and castles to absorb as much history and context as she could to add to the richness of her book.

This research shows in Berry's colorful descriptions of the landscape of each city the book mentions. Her sensitivity to the culture and history of France, as well as the language, flows naturally throughout the novel.

"The Passion of Dolssa" includes some violence, including burning scenes. There is no foul language or explicit sexual content.

Berry is now working on a middle grade novel set to be released in spring 2017, with "The Emperor’s Ostrich" as a working title.

Email: toriackerman@gmail.com

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