Washington author Sophy Burnham’s novel is set in France during the Catholic Inquisition of the 1200s, a time of terror and genocide in which neighbors and friends lived in fear of being branded heretics. The protagonist, Jeanne of Béziers, was found as a baby following a massacre led by the Catholic Church; she was adopted by the Cathars, a Christian sect whose offenses against Catholicism included translating the Bible into the vernacular, refusing to tithe to the Church, and dismissing the pope’s authority.
Jeanne and her best friend, Baiona, spend their childhood under the tutelage of Lady Esclarmonde, a Cathar who teaches that “God is found in silence, stillness, and prayer.” Baiona is the model of a young Cathar lady, Jeanne a restless dreamer—“She wanted to pitch herself out in the sweet heavy air and . . . fly.”
In adulthood, Jeanne falls in love with a freedom fighter named William. He betrays her to marry the wealthier Baiona but soon is back in Jeanne’s arms. All three find themselves trapped in the fortress of Montségur after a siege there in which more than 200 Cathars are killed. Jeanne escapes and is the only person who can save the Cathar treasure of Montségur. (The nature of the treasure is only gradually revealed and won’t be given away here.) In the arms of a peasant farmer, she discovers the true treasure of Montségur and her destiny in keeping it alive.
Burnham—known for her nonfiction work A Book of Angels—paints a vivid picture of the Cathars’ struggles. Despite doses of Hollywood melodrama—one minute Jeanne can’t live without William; the next she’s married to a knight whom she later finds in bed with his sister—Burnham’s intertwining of historical events and figures with Jeanne’s search for love and God make for an intriguing and ultimately haunting tale.