Author: Adam Gidwitz
Illustrator: Hatem Aly
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 27, 2016
ISBN: 978-0525426165 8
Audience: Ages 10 – 14 (Up and beyond is more appropriate.)
Summary: An unknown narrator begins the story: King Louis of France has amassed an army of knights to go to war against three children and a dog. I am at the Holy Cross Roads Inn in March, 1242, with many others who are gathered to see the king march by. I ask, “Does anyone know anything about these kids and why the king wants to destroy them? “ My question opens a floodgate of stories from the other occupants of the inn: a brewster, a nun, a librarian, a jongleur, the inn keeper, a king’s companion, a friar and a troubadour. They tell of Gwenforte, the greyhound who saved Jeanne from an asp, was cruelly killed, and then venerated because of her brave action; of Jeanne, a peasant girl who has seizures, sees the future and is accused of witchcraft; of Jacob, a Jewish boy who can heal and whose home and village have been burned by Christian boys; of William, the “dark bastard” of a Crusader and a Muslim mother, an oblate in an abbey where his size, his appetite, his challenging questions cause the abbey to expel him with a load of books for the Abbey St. Denis. Jacob is searching for his parents, lost in the fire. Jeanne, accompanied by a resurrected Gwenforte, has fled her home for safety because her village, even her parents, believe she is a witch. The three meet on the road in most unlikely circumstances and, overcoming their original distrust of each other, form an indissoluble bond. They choose to follow a monk, Michelangelo, to Paris to save the hundreds of Talmuds that have been collected for burning by King Louis. They fail in this but remember the books William had forgotten and left at the inn. They hurry to reclaim these, finding a Talmud among them, and take them to Mont-Saint- Michel. It is here that Louis’s army attacks. At this point the narrator reveals his identity and joins the story. Are the children saints or heretics? Can saints have a future other than martyrdom? Choosing to use their gifts, the children face the future together. “A miracle,” says Michelangelo.
Literary elements at work in the story: Open this book and enter the Middle Ages. You won’t learn more about the 13th Century – life, food, sanitation practices, social order, religious orders, beliefs, superstitions, prejudices-in a graduate college course. The separate but continued telling of the story in different voices moves a complex plot along where the identity of characters and narrators is often misleading. One may anticipate the language of 13th C England but informal 21st C English serves well without seeming out of place. There’s excitement, almost like old Saturday movie serials, with a cliff hanger at every story teller’s conclusion. There’s grade school bathroom humor and there are sections of theological reflection, some that seem to break into the narrative rather than grow from it. The illustrations, one of the book’s real strengths, should be seen in comparison with illuminated manuscripts like The Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels. They take more than a glance. A concluding section by the author identifies many actual historical characters (but not all) and events in the book and includes a bibliography for young people and adults. He also reflects on the similarities between then and now. Don’t read this section first.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? All of these are part of this story. There are social distinctions between peasant, artisans, land owners, and royalty. Education divides society. Male church leaders dominate the culture. Women, daughters of Eve, are a source of temptation and evil. Racial divisions between Jew and gentile simmer and often flair up. King Louis’s prejudice against Jews is expressed with vigor. He disdains peasants too. Racial prejudice due to skin color was not part of Middle Ages culture; William attracts attention and prejudice because of size but only surprise and interest because of color.
Theological Conversation Partners: Sainthood, martyrdom, the problem of evil, the plan and purposes of God, discernment of God’s will, prejudice, persecution, sacred texts, prayer, faith, and miracles are all topics touched on in this story. The possibilities for discussion are many; not all are developmentally appropriate for the 10-year-old audience recommended for this book. The main theme of the book, however, is the developing bond between 3 children who are different in sex, race, class, and religion and this works for all ages. How can such different people be committed friends? How can one be both faithful and inclusive? In the closing pages of the book both Hebrew scripture (Dt. 6:4,5; Lv. 19:19.) and the Golden Rule (Mt. 7:12) are cited by the children as they read the books they have saved. Is this sufficient? When Michelangelo asks Jeanne to fake a vision to change the king’s plans, they try to understand how we know God’s will apart from a vision. Feelings and experience seem to be the guide. Are these adequate? The children turn to prayer naturally and frequently. Is there a difference in Jewish and Christian prayer is one issue raised. The New Testament concept of saint (ex. Rom 1:7) can be contrasted with the common understanding of sainthood, of Michelangelo’s.
Faith Talk Questions:
- These are three very different children. In what ways do they differ? Are the differences significant?
- How do they become such fast friends? What happens to their differences?
- The inquisitor thinks one cannot choose to be a saint. Do you agree?
- What is the New Testament meaning of saint? Does this book agree with the New Testament?
- What is the meaning of satan? Why does Michelangelo consider satan essential?
- The knight, Marmeluc, asks Jacob about his faith saying,”I never talked to a Jew.” Is it possible to understand another faith without talking with someone who practices it?
- Is it possible to coerce faith? To buy faith? What is the way Jesus directs us to share faith? Acts 1:8
- Michel says that the children will be martyrs whether they stay together or separate. Why?
- Michel calls the committed friendship between the three “a miracle.” Do you agree?
This review is written by Union Presbyterian Seminary alumna and regular contributor Virginia Thomas.