Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: PILGRIMAGE by Lucy Pick

For centuries, Christian pilgrims have plied the roads of Europe towards the magnificent cathedral of Saint James the Greater in Compostela, Spain. Streams of nameless pilgrims walked the Way of St. James to plead their intentions, exonerate their guilt, and render homage to the saint at his Spanish resting place. Lucy Pick, a professor of medieval religious thought and practice, has imagined the plight of one such pilgrim, Gebirga of Flanders, in her historical novel PILGRIMAGE (Cuidono Press, July 2014). A fresh and thoughtful read, PILGRIMAGE explores betrayal, friendship, healing, and redemption in a setting hitherto ignored yet vastly important to the fabric of medieval life.

Blindness descends on young Gebirga, the only child of Bertulf and Godeleva of Gistel, after she witnesses an altercation between her parents which results in her mother’s death. Her father establishes a convent in memory of his saintly wife and departs on crusade, leaving Gebirga in the care of his brother at the castle. Raised by her nurse to be independent despite her infirmity, Gebirga learns to navigate her environs with help of her dog and becomes a competent châtelaine. When her father unexpectedly returns to Gistel with a new bride, Gebirga expects to be relegated to the convent. However, a trip to Bruges occasions an unforeseen encounter with Katerinen, sister of the Count of Flanders, and the beginning of a new life for Gebirga as the headstrong girl’s attendant. The political schemes of the great require Katerinen and Gebirga to travel to Spain in the guise of simple pilgrims. The final two thirds of the book trace the details of the women’s journey to Compostela as members of a motley group searching for healing and forgiveness and finding friendship, love, and purpose along the way.

A professor of history and religion, Pick understands both the complicated politics of the time and the texture of medieval piety and immerses the reader in this rich and unfamiliar world with confidence and aplomb. She guides the reader through the tangled the web of European alliances and Spanish monarchies with patience and grace, careful not to overwhelm the reader with detail but always providing just enough framework to support the dramatic action. More importantly, Pick treats medieval religious practices and popular sentiment with respect, presenting them to the modern reader without apology or condescension, opening the door to a forgotten way of seeing the world and inviting the reader in. This attention to the religious character of everyday medieval life gives her novel a credibility that many popular works of medieval fiction lack.

As in any good novel, it is the characters and their relationships that capture the reader’s heart, and here, too, Pick does not disappoint. PILGRIMAGE’s cast of characters ranges the entire scale of medieval society, from popes and queens to shepherds and tavern louts. Of particular interest are Yusef, the mysterious messenger who straddles two cultures and faiths; Aiméry, the Augustian canon traveling the pilgrimage routes in order to write a book about them; and Katerinen, the unstable yet endearing teen bride who becomes Gebirga’s charge and friend. Gebirga herself offers an interesting take on the typical historical fiction heroine: she must overcome not only the social limitations of medieval womanhood, but the physical blindness that could have easily rendered her a useless burden on her family and society. The guilt Gebirga bears over her inability to clearly recall the circumstances of her mother’s death and the challenge of living as the daughter of an official saint add to her difficulties. It is only fitting that Gebirga’s journey rocky journey toward happiness and self-acceptance culminates at Compostela, a place of spiritual and emotional, as well as physical, healing.

The novelty of PILGRIMAGE’s setting and the uniqueness of its plot earn it the honor of being a must-read for lovers of historical fiction. The author’s fine understanding of human relationships, her thoughtful investigation of miracles and their meaning, and her respectful yet exacting exploration of faith in all its expressions ensure that PILGRIMAGE will find a place on lists of favorite historical novels for years to come.


Lucy Pick, Ph.D, is the Director of Undergraduate Studies and Senior Lecturer in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School and an associate professor in the Department of History. She specializes in the connections between historical writing and theology and the ways in which religion shapes lives through ritual. She has written a monograph on Jewish, Christian and Muslim relations in thirteenth-century Toledo and is currently examining the careers of royal women in early medieval Spain. PILGRIMAGE is her first novel. You can learn more about Lucy Pick and her fiction at her blog, Lucy Pick Books.

Lucy will be back tomorrow to answer questions about her novel.

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