Review: Beloved Pilgrim by Nan Hawthorne

Not content with a life as a passive and powerless noblewoman, a young Bavarian woman dons her late twin brother’s armor and weapons and sets out to join the disastrous Crusade of 1101. She is able to pass as a young man because, as she observes to her squire, who was also her brother’s lover, “People see what they expect to see.” She learns two things on her journey, that honor is not always where you expect to find it and that true love can come in the form of another woman
Review by Yakalskovich
A book about lesbian crusaders — that sounds either like some bizarre sexploitation premise, or a massive dose of historically incorrect strangeness. Still, once I started reading this book, I found that Nan Hawthorne made it work quite brilliantly.
Elisabeth von Winterkirche is a young noblewoman living in Bavaria around the year 1100. Owing to a series of rather tragic circumstances, she runs away from home in her dead twin brother’s armour, with her brother’s former lover as her squire. Only the squire, Albrecht, know her secret. Wanting to fulfill her brother’s vow and to find their father who had joined the First Crusade, she joins a number of latecomers to the crusade assembling fist at the Melk monastery, then in Bologna in northern Italy.
Albrecht and Elisabeth — who goes by her brother’s name, Elias — join up with a number of other crusaders and pilgrims whom they will stick will, or meet again, during their entire journey. This journey turns into a journey of self-discovery for Elisabeth, from her first infatuation through the discovery of sexual pleasure to true love. Other than her lovers, she keeps her secret from everybody, taking to the knightly life like a fish to water. After a brief if lovely respite in Constantinople, the crusaders depart for the Anatolian highlands, to fight free a direct overland route to the Holy Land through the Turk occupied territories…
This book is filled with historical detail and characters that we really learn to care about. There are three problems, however, that keep me from giving it the full five stars. For one thing, Hawthorne gets many of the German names wrong; she should have asked a native speaker whether these work as place names or surnames. Unfortunately, many don’t, which made me laugh in places where I shouldn’t have.
Then, there is a very slight undercurrent of OK HOMO in the development of the main characters. They keep happening on people who keep telling them that love is love and a good gift from God, no matter what the circumstances, which would have been deeply heretic at the time, to put it mildly. Acceptance and self-acceptance comes a tad too easy to the protagonists. And lastly, there is a problem with the POV. We normally stick strictly with Elisabeth, apart from a few surprise moments when we do not. These moments increase in frequency and length after the crusaders leave for Anatolia; during the campaign and battles, we often see events from a vague third person omniscient POV in which we observe the commanders talking, whole armies moving, and strategies explained with nary a sight of Elisabeth for several pages. Also, a map would be really helpful at times.
Still, despite these little weaknesses, it is a lovely book that I enjoyed very much which makes me look forward to a potential sequel. Plot lines have been left dangling that the reader still cares about — what happened with Elisabeth’s father? Will any of them ever actually reach Jerusalem? Will they return to Bavaria and oust the usurper from the castle? This calls for a second book; and the author’s web side reassures us that it is in the works.-
Author’s website: http://www.nanhawthorne.com/

6 Responses

  1. Highly appreciate the attention to my LGBT historical novel. There is a back ground story about Elias and Albrercht you may enjoy on http://www.wildeoats.com .

    Thanks!

    Nan Hawthorne

  2. I wanted to add:

    You mentioned a map would have been helpful. As mentioned in the book, all the auxiliary materials are on my web site.. including character list, maps and a “whatever happened to..?” http://www.nanhawthorne.com/ and choose My Nooks and then under Beloved Pilgrim the link to auxiliary materials.

    I dropped you a note on your blog but will ask here too. Since Winterkirche is the only original place name in German, could you drop me a note and tell me which the ones were that were wrong? Thanks!

    Nan
    hawthorne@nanhawthorne.com

  3. Twice as much as I enjoyed the review, I have to object to the allegedly funny German names.
    As a native speaker, I could not see anything inappropriate or plainly wrong here (on the contrary, I think “Reichsgraf von Linkshändig” is a brilliant name). To see really funny place names, have a look at a map of Germany, there are villages like Habenichts (have-not), Katzenhirn (cat’s brain), Faulebutter (rotten butter), Kuhbier (cow ale) etc.

    regards,

    Sandra

    • Yes, Katzenellenbogen. Linsengericht. Tuntenhausen. I know.-

      But at that time, you only got ‘Soandso of Thereandthere’ (either a place where their family were lords, or a place where they are from in case of learned monks, or maybe a house in a city, but that might have come only in late medieval times), so ‘von Linkshändig’ and ‘von Schwarzestier’ would just not have existed. Only much later on, under the Prussian kaisers, did you see people ‘knighted’ and adding ‘von’ to their mundane names, so jokes like the one about the wife showing off their recent nobility by calming her husband saying ‘Von Schulze, fasse dich!’ would become common.

      They would have been ‘Reichsgraf [firstname] der Linkhändige’ or ‘[whateverhisname] das Schwarze Tier’.

  4. Yakalskovich says Beloved Pilgrim has some elements of Homo OK (or whatever is it called, i.e. the too readily accepted acceptance of homosexuality in characters). Yeah? Where?

    Magdalena, the anchorite nun? Is she too accepting of love and consequentially too heretical? (Says a lot for the Christianity of the time, doesn’t it.) Hey, She was meant to be a heretic. And she was accepting of it because of her own personal history where she had been originally anything but accepting. She had learnt the hard way to be accepting. So she was hardly, in her youth, OK Homo about things.

    Maybe the prostitute Elisabeth ended up with for her ‘first time’. Was she too accepting? Well, yeah, a prostitute has no doubt seen it all. She was surprised that Elias was female, but why would she be surprised by a lesbian? And maybe the gentle love of a young lesbian was a nice change to the rough sex of the soldiers she has to deal with usually.

    Who else? Maliha? Well, she came from a non-Catholic background and a city of old Greek background. Istanbul at the time was renowned for undercover same sex activity. Besides, the story said she had experimented with lesbian activity as a child. And she needed someone to keep her and her child, so why not a woman? What difference would that make? Probably be easier. And societies where the sexes are rigidly separated are known for a lot of same sex activity.

    As for Elisabeth herself. The story opens with Elias and Albrecht already in a relationship, so they had presumably already dealt with that issue themselves. Elisabeth had long known about her brother’s homosexuality so already accepted it. As she is his twin and identified with him more than anyone else, then she would be able to deal with her own homosexual tendencies. They wouldn’t come as a surprise to her. In fact, after dealing with her brother’s sexuality, then the difficulties of covering up her gender, then she would have found it easy enough to accept her own sexuality.

    As for Andronikos. Ha, well, of course he’d be accepting and understanding. Convenient she happened to be in his house? Maybe, but then, there does have to be some others in Elisabeth’s world who are same sex as well. They do make up 10% of the population.

    I can’t think of any others. Elisabeth hid her sexuality from everyone else.

    Elisabeth and Albrecht left home because of the dangers Albrecht was in over his sexuality. They spent a lot of time and trouble covering up because of the danger.

    Rather than OK Homo I think the author has put a lot of effort into showing us how dangerous it was, and how hard it was to deal with at the time. For the purpose of the plot there were times when it was necessary for the protagonists to come across some others who knew and understand so they could help move the plot, but she did well to do that in a way that suited the era. Not everyone in these eras would have been anti-homo.

    It appears to me the author knows the era well and has portrayed it convincingly.

    • I am closing this thread to comments as the accusatory tone against the reviewer is entirely out of keeping and is not accepted on this blog. It’s clear that people are coming over from Nan’s historical group just to stand up for her. Considering that the book garnered our highest general mark (five stars are rare as hen’s teeth, we’ve only had five or six this entire year) then I don’t think the discussion is necessary. Take up your issues with the reviewer personally, if you have them with the review.

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