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In the footsteps of Joan of Arc: heroines mark new crop of young adult books

Joan of Arc is more than a historical figure or a saint. Over the centuries, she has become a symbol of conscience, of courage, of conviction. Last year, heroines like her led the way through two important children's books: Georgie in ``The Fragile Flag'' and Princess Aerin in ``The Hero and the Sword,'' a Newbery-award winner. Several other recent children's books also focus on the warrior-maiden, and so the question arises: Why the renewed interest in this symbol? Perhaps children (and authors) are fascinated by Joan of Arc's daring disregard for restrictive sex roles. Or perhaps they yearn for models of inner strength, uncommon bravery, and youthful idealism. Whatever the reason, in four recent books Joan's real and literary followers challenge the reader to think anew about the meaning of faith, fulfillment, and purpose.

Tamora Pierce's new fantasy-adventure The Hand of the Goddess (Atheneum, 1984, $12.95, 232 pp., ages 10 to 12) has strong Arthurian overtones -- knights and ladies, court games, sorcery, and the like. At center stage is Alan, nee Alanna. Disguised as a boy and squired to the King of Trebond, she proves herself a steadfast fighter and a loyal subject. But there's a price to be paid for living a lie: Alanna longs for love and loveliness. In the end, with knighthood achieved, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery. ``I'll sort out Roger and being a lady knight and what I want to do with my life, and then I'll come back,'' she says.

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Beneath all the action, Pierce touches on some interesting issues. Alanna is daring in her exploration of androgyny. She takes the ``dress for success'' credo to its extreme: In her world, knighthood is the ticket, and she goes for it. Moreover, Alanna chooses to ``succeed'' rather than succumb to charming Prince Jonathan's declarations of love: She fends off the Cinderella complex along with Duke Roger.

But despite her tenacity and independent spirit, Alanna is very much a medieval man or woman. She is a warrior-maiden, but her perspective is narrow: herself and her king. The story is readable, romantic, robust, but in many ways pedestrian in its vision.

Centuries later and in a real world, Sarah Aaronsohn also thought beyond home and family. A Spy for Freedom: The Story of Sarah Aaronsohn, by Ida Cowen and Irene Gunther (Lodestar, 1984, $14.95, 158 pp., ages 12 to 14), recounts Sarah's role in Nili, a Jewish espionage group that supplied the British with information from Palestine during World War I. Nili helped oust the Turks and pave the way for British rule and Jewish statehood. For the part she played, Sarah Aaronsohn is today revered as Israel's Joan of Arc.

Based on personal interviews, letters, memoirs, and recently declassified documents, this biography is historically accurate. Nonetheless, it is fictionalized. The dialogue, although an invention meant to infuse vitality, is instead often stiff and contrived, like the lines from a B movie. Still, this is a serviceable biography, not only for its historical perspective, its intrigue, and its romance, but also for its commentary on the human condition.

Authors Cowen and Gunther focus on the restrictive roles assigned women of the era. Sarah allowed herself to be wed in an arranged marriage, and her life as a wife in Istanbul was strictly circumscribed. Back in Palestine, she could at least fight for acceptance. ``Defense is no job for a woman,'' the arguments went. ``But I care as much as any of you about what happens to my people.''

The authors also raise a provocative issue: Do the ends justify the means? Is spying for a righteous cause right? (There was considerable debate over this question in the Jewish community during World War I.)

Finally, Cowen and Gunther use Sarah to exemplify the ultimate self-sacrifice. Rather than expose her comrades or countrymen to further danger, she committed suicide when faced with brutal Turkish interrogation. Her concern for her people overshadowed her concern for personal comfort and safety. Thus she is linked with the spirit of the original Joan of Arc.

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In Doomsday Plus Twelve (Scribners, 1984, $14.95, 230 pp., ages 12-14), James Forman chronicles his own version of ``the day after.'' In this sequel to ``Call Back Yesterday,'' the year is 2000. The setting is Fort Blanco, Ore., one of the few Pacific Coast communities to survive the global nuclear war 12 years before. It has been rebuilt with outside assistance from Japan, the one remaining technological power. In the meantime, militarists in San Diego have acquired a nuclear sub. Their aim: to destroy Japan and reestablish American hegemony.

Blanco teen-ager Val Tucker fears for her world. She mounts a ``Millennium Now'' crusade to convince the southern militarists that peace is a better way. Over mountains, across deserts, meeting Hell's Angels, drug dropouts, Indians, and finally the People's Army itself along the way, Val perseveres. In a suspenseful and surprising conclusion, the crusaders find themselves faced, not with an invincible enemy, but with a paper tiger.

Forman's descriptions of nuclear nightmare are eerie, even understated. The story moves right along from episode to episode, but it is lengthy, even weighty. It is overpopulated with characters and connections. There are references to Don Quixote, to the Children's Crusade, to pilgrims, and to '60s-style idealism. There are allusions to hawks and doves, internationalism, and jingoism, to ``less is more'' and ``back to nature.'' Val herself is almost a religious leader -- like a Jesus or perhaps a Joan.

The overall effect of such overcrowding of allusions is distracting. The reader begins to seek out implicit meanings everywhere, as if playing a game. Is Val for valor and Vic for victory? The reader feels strangely detached. Is it possible that in this book ``less could be more''?

In 1936, Hannah Senesh wrote, ``I'm just a struggling 15-year-old girl whose principal preoccupation is coping with herself.'' Just eight years later, she had grown beyond her adolescent preoccupation: She had martyred herself for her people. In a Kindling Flame: The Story of Hanna Senesh, 1921-1944 (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1985, $13.50, 214 pp., ages 12 and up), by Linda Atkinson, recalls Hannah's daring and her dream.

She grew up in an assimilated Jewish family, surrounded by all the comforts and culture that Budapest had to offer. It was in high school that she first experienced overt anti-Semitism. She then turned to Zionism and emigrated to Palestine. But with the smoldering Holocaust in Europe, she felt restless and purposeless, even in Palestine. Like Sarah Aaronsohn before her, she joined an intelligence group under British command. She made her way back to German-occupied Hungary. There she was arrested, tried, and executed. She had failed in her personal mission to save Jewish lives, but she succeeded in leaving a legacy of hope for those who followed.

Like Anne Frank, Hannah was a writer. Atkinson quotes extensively from her letters, diaries, and poems, thus giving the text a powerful voice. Atkinson also provides historical background, and so the book is illuminating history as well as inspiring biography. With its evocative cover illustration and lovely calligraphied chapter headings, the book is handsome indeed. The Senesh family photographs are interspersed with classic war photos, and the juxtaposition of beloved faces and nameless victims serves as an uncomfortable reminder that no one was exempt from war.

Clearly Atkinson's interest in Hannah is not just academic. One of Hannah's poems begins and ends with this line: ``Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.'' Atkinson is committed to keeping the flame of Hannah's life alive so that it may continue to fire all that is good in the human spirit.

Susan Faust is a librarian at the Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco.

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