The Passion of Dolssa is a frank and honest portrait of religious devotion that is true both to religion and to history.
The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry. Viking, 2016, 446 pages
Reading Level: Young Adult, 12-15
Recommended for: Ages 15-up
Provincial France, 1241: About fifteen years after the “Albegensian Crusade” wreaked havoc among the peasants (labeled heretics) of southern France, church authorities are disturbed to hear that heresy is pushing up through the scorched earth again. Dolssa de Stigata, a young mystic who escaped burning, has taken refuge near the seacoast town of Baza, where three sisters who preside over the local tavern feel compelled to shelter her. Botille, the middle sister, who narrates much of the story, fears they may not be able to hide Dolssa for long, especially with the dogged and merciless Father Lucien on the scent.
It would be so easy to make the title character a proto-feminist standing up to and shaming the patriarchal church, but that doesn’t happen. True, the established church doesn’t come off too well here, but according to the author note the historical events are all as described, including the revival of personal piety and devotion among Christian women of middling rank. Dolssa is one of those, a teenage girl with no ax to grind and nothing to prove but her consuming love for Jesus. The church doesn’t know what to do with this; neither do the layfolk like Botille–and neither do we. Her faith is a genuine faith, a rare thing in contemporary YA literature. In the end her story deserves respect, and so do the characters, even those with loose morals. There will be passages that rub Christian readers the wrong way, such as Botille’s evaluation of her late mother, a courtesan:
Mama loved us. She loved her lovers . . . I remember her loving strangers and neighbors and even poor, starving lepers. She loved Jesus, too. Wasn’t it the Evangelist who told of the many times when Jesus forgave sinful women?
But Botille herself is a good-natured soul smitten by the other-worldliness Dolssa represents: “I, who pedaled in ale, and wine, and brides—how could—why could—such holiness cross paths with me?” In the end we are left with something of the same love and awe, and the same sense of gratitude for life. The book is for mature readers, due to the cautions listed below, but well worth the time.
Cautions: Language (one damn, 2-3 instances of “shite”); Vulgarity (mild bawdiness, entirely typical of the medieval setting); Violence
Overall Rating: 4.75 (out of 5)