Since Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is neither one of his most well-known works of prose, nor is it considered one of his best, it is somewhat surprising that it has been included in the Campfire Graphic Classic Novel Series along with such perennial Twain favorites as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Prince and the Pauper.
This fictional account of the famed French saint and her holy crusade to restore France to its rightful king is not typical Twain. It is epic in scope and very serious in its treatment of its subject. Twain is clearly moved by his conception of the young teenaged warrior; so much so that the accuracy of his portrait has been questioned by some critics (George Bernard Shaw, example).
While cynical modern readers might well take issue with Twain’s emphasis on fairies, prophecies, and miracles, they are in fact a big part of Joan’s narrative, and to downplay them, or treat them with a kind of post-modern irony would suggest a point of view quite alien to what are clearly Twain’s intentions. Besides one could argue that in creating the character of Joan’s childhood companion, Louis de Conte to tell her story from the vantage point of his old age, it is not the author, but the surrogate narrator who puts the positive spin on the miraculous occurrences of the heroine’s life and death.
In this sense, Twain is telling the story of a man, a witness to the events, who believes completely the evidence of his own eyes. On the other hand, the book was written late in the author’s life, and it is said that he may have based the portrait of Joan on his recollection of his daughter at that age, so there is certainly an argument for his emotional investment in his subject. In any case, the young girl at the center of his book is very much the model of what has become a fairly common notion of Joan of Arc.
The Campfire edition adapted by Tony DiGerolamo and illustrated by Rajesg Nagulakonda follows along with Twain’s historical novel with care. It introduces de Conte in old age, and allows him to tell the story of the country maid beginning with her childhood and the early signs of her special gifts, and moving on to successful attempts to get audience with the ineffectual king to convince him to put her at the head of an armed force to get the English out of France and then the actual battles. Finally it treats the betrayal that left her in the hands of the enemy after she was captured and her martyrdom. And while the actual imprisonment and trials are not dealt with in as much detail as they are in the original, they are shown, as is the eventual burning at the stake. There is violence. It is not especially graphic, but it is pictured, after all these terrifying events are a central part of the story. Still they might be a bit much for impressionable younger readers. This is probably a book for the more mature youngster.
DiGerolamo includes notes in the text to explain any of the historical references and foreign vocabulary that might be troublesome for the reader. He talks about the Hundred Years War. When Charlemagne is mentioned, he explains who he is. He defines Dauphin for anyone unfamiliar with the term. The Song of Roland, for example, recited by an unfortunate soldier aided by Joan, is described as “the oldest surviving work of French literature. It is an epic poem that celebrates the legendary deeds of a soldier known as Roland in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass.” This kind of information is taken for granted in the original, but would certainly be useful for the young readers of the Campfire editions. Also useful for the younger reader is the short biographical note on Mark Twain and a two-page appendix with information on other famous female warriors.
The art work is interesting. Nagulakonda’s drawings are not idealized. Characters are not plastic beauties. Males are rough and rugged. Women, even Joan herself, are not romanticized. In the one or two moments of her vision Joan may be pictured in a mystical glow, but otherwise this is not a stained glass portrait of the saint. Illustrations in Campfire editions have a rough jagged style; earthy might be a good word to describe them, and Joan of Arc is no exception. It is less dark than others I’ve looked at, but except for the ending the material is less dark as well.
In general Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc in the Campfire edition is a good way to introduce younger readers to one of the lesser works of one of the great American writers, a work they are not likely to seek out on their own. Although since it is in the public domain, it is available on line for free download, it is after all two volumes and more than 400 pages in the edition I read, and it is not always the kind of reading that will enchant the young reader. As narrators go, Louis de Conte is not Huck Finn. The graphic version may well have at least a shot at piquing the young reader’s interest.