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REVIEW Beloved Pilgrim
Reviewed by Richard Warren Field
Nan Hawthorne’s Beloved Pilgrim dramatizes the events of the crusade of 1101, an unnumbered crusade, following right after the First Crusade (which concluded with the Western Christian capture of Jerusalem in 1099). Hawthorne remains absolutely loyal to the facts of the crusade while her characters bring exotic and fresh angles to the story.
Elizabeth is a young woman with a streak of independence trapped in circumstances incompatible with her feisty nature. She finds herself facing a marriage that will tie her to an unaffectionate brute, a man who has no compunction about using her for his needs, physical and economic, while completely disregarding her feelings and well-being. Her brother is committed to go on the crusade. She has sparred with her brother, so knows the moves of a medieval knight. In fact, she is accomplished enough to compete effectively with him. When he dies of an illness, she takes his place, fleeing her circumstances to join the Christian fighting pilgrimage. Only her squire, the gay lover of her late brother, knows of the deception. Much of the suspense of the novel develops from Elizabeth’s desperate efforts to keep her secret in the midst of the challenging circumstances of an army marching under stress, moving through hostile territory, confronted by strong, dangerous enemies.
Hawthorne also takes us to the exotic court of the Byzantine Empire, dramatizing the quirky mix of Greek/Eastern Christianity into the whole crusading movement. (A Byzantine Emperor’s plea for help triggered the First Crusade, but Byzantine emperors came to regret the Western European rush east this plea triggered, and greeted future expeditions with everything from indifference to outright hostility.) Colorful characters in the Byzantine court mix into the story in unexpected ways, causing Elizabeth to explore her own sexual preference, and creating the possibility that Elizabeth and her companion can have a happy ending regardless of the success or failure of the crusading mission.
Elizabeth’s struggles on the crusade, her battles, her growth and development, and the uncertainty over her ultimate fate, will keep readers enthralled to the end.