Elisabeth von Winterkirche, a tomboy in petticoats, would rather wield a sword than an embroidery needle, and cares more for war than the traditional life of a Bavarian noblewoman and wife. After her beloved twin brother Elias dies, and she is forced into a most unhappy
marriage with a brute who repeatedly rapes her, Elisabeth dons her brother's armor, crops her hair, and with his squire and secret lover, Albrecht, sets out to join the doomed Crusade of 1101.
Along the way to Constantinople and then the Holy Land, she cleverly deals with all the tricks necessary to conceal her femininity and gains in confidence as she discovers that people "see what they expect. They see the armor and the cross and need look no harder," and readily accept her as what she seems to be--an innocent young nobleman embarking on a quest, his sword yet unbloodied.
The journey also proves enlightening in another fashion--Elisabeth, now calling herself Elias, discovers her attraction to her own sex, first in a chaste infatuation with the beautiful Ida, Margravina of Austria, and then in the arms of the beautiful whore Guiliana when her comrades in arms good-naturedly treat their young companion to a night of pleasure, to lose his suspected virginity. Guiliana keeps Elisabeth's secret and initiates her into the arts of love between women, which will stand her in good stead when, soon after, she finds the love of her life in the honey-eyed half Turkish, half Greek servant woman Maliha. But all too soon Elisabeth must leave her love behind and go on to face the blood, roar, and thunder of battle, and the heat, filth, and buzzing flies of an army of unwashed armor-clad bodies on the march and the deprivation and want they endure when supplies run low and the enemy burns the fields rather than have their crops fall into enemy hands.
Nan Hawthorne paints a vivid, living, breathing, and, when it comes to the travails of war, broiling hot and reeking portrait of what life was like for a pilgrim knight on crusade. Beloved Pilgrim is a grand tale of love and adventure, heartache and self-discovery that both male and
female readers can enjoy.
For those concerned about sexual content in their reading matter: the lesbian sex scenes are vividly rendered, but they are not, in my opinion, gratuitous, as each expresses something about the characters involved--In this story, sexuality is also part of the journey.
Beloved Pilgrim breathes new life into the oft-told centuries old tale of "girl disguises herself as boy to go off to war" and is one of the best novels of this kind that I have ever read.