Title: Jepp, Who Defied the Stars
Author: Katherine Marsh
Publisher: Hyperion, 2012
Audience: Grade 7 and up
Summary: “The soul of the newly born baby is marked for life by the pattern of the stars…” Johannes Kepler., 17th C astrologer and scientist, 1571-1630
Jepp has led a happy and secure life with his mother in the inn she keeps in Astraveld despite Catholic-Protestant skirmishes that occur regularly in the area. Occasionally travelers have commented on his size and from them he learns the word “dwarf,” but he does not think of himself as a dwarf, only as Jepp. As he reaches his fifteenth year, however, he becomes increasingly concerned about his unknown father and bothered by those who still treat him as a child. One evening a finely dressed man, Don Diego, comes to the inn and offers to take Jepp to the court of the Infanta Isabella as a court dwarf. His mother gives her permission, wanting Jepp to seek a better life. Jepp’s feelings are mixed as he leaves for Castle Coudenberg; Don assures him that he can return. Don Diego asserts that he has found Jepp, not by luck but by the stars. Jepp spends a year at court, living in luxury and humiliation. He does have the opportunity to learn in the court’s fine library and is assigned a kind tutor yet he and the three other dwarfs, Lia, Sebastian, and Maria, are treated as dolls or toys, a source of entertainment rather than persons. Jepp tries to help his friend, Lia, escape from court after she has been raped by the court jester. The attempt fails; Lia dies; and Jepp is punished and sent far away by Don Diego to the castle-observatory, Uraniborg, of Tycho Brahe, an astronomer who gathers scholars around him to study the stars. Here, too, Jepp is treated almost as a dog, sitting under the table to eat, caring for a tame moose, and picking up his master’s prosthetic nose. Tycho’s daughter, Magdalene takes an interest in Jepp. She draws up horoscopes for King Frederick’s court and Jepp realizes that she has drawn up the horoscope that Don Diego had done for him. She feels his future is determined by his horoscope and it is a good one. Jepp insists that it is his effort and choices that determine his life. Jepp’s knowledge and capabilities are eventually recognized and his place as one of Brahe’s scholars is assured. Still he is driven to revisit his home and to seek his father, taking his life in the direction of an uncertain future, convinced this is his free choice.
Literary Elements in the Story: Careful research is deftly woven into a complex and engrossing historical narrative in Jepp. The story takes place at the last of the 16th C, a turbulent time following the Reformation. Three different settings- an inn in Astraveld, the Catholic court of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, and the castle of Tycho Brahe in Denmark,–are brought to vivid life.. This is a turbulent period for science as well as religion and the author gives some details at the book’s conclusion about actual people and events.
Jepp is an unusual hero, resourceful and intelligent, possibly the first dwarf that has ever engaged the reader in a book or life. Many European courts acquired dwarfs, particularly Spain, and Velasquez, the Spanish court painter, included them in pictures or did sensitive, individual portraits. These are easy to find on the web and would enrich the novel, particularly Las Meninas. The dwarf in this picture is the model for Lia. The same is true of Dutch paintings of memento mori, a popular subject in the late 16th C that engaged Lia. Jepp’s honest, eloquent, sometimes poetic voice tells the story in both present and past tense, maturing over the book’s two year span. This is at once an adventure, a mystery, a coming of age tale, a quest, and a melding of history and fiction, well plotted, skillfully written.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? 16th C Europe has distinct social stratification that can be seen in the different treatment of peasants, servants, and nobility. Tycho Brahe’s children can inherit neither his title nor his property because a commoner is his wife. While the Infanta rules Spanish Netherlands with her husband, and women like Jepp’s mother can engage in business, it is still a man’s world; a woman needs a husband. Dwarfs are treated like dolls or pets. Jepp is expected to be stupid and is treated accordingly. Racial differences are not part of the story.
Theological Conversation Partners: At the heart of this story is the profound question: Are our lives pre-determined by forces outside ourselves or do we have genuine choices? Astrology, astronomy, and medicine were considered equal sciences through the end of the 17th C and horoscopes were a booming business until then. Note the quotation of Kepler whose laws of planetary motion changed the course of astronomy. There are still horoscopes in newspapers each day without any standing in the scientific community. Katherine Marsh grew up in a home where astrology was an important guide and it still has a significant place in her life. The characters in Jepp act from a theological mix of Catholic piety, astrology, and doubt. Jepp claims that he is responsible for his failure in Coudenburg and his success in Uraniborg. Madelane points to the horoscope she has drawn up for him (actually two horoscopes) as the source of the good that comes his way. Is it fate or free will? Most readers of this book will have little faith in the stars. In Christian theology, however, the relationship between free will and a sovereign God is akin to the relationship between stars or fate and free will. It may helpful to examine the aspects of our life in which we have no choice (parents, siblings, birthplace, etc.) and those where we feel we do make choices. The Bible certainly speaks of predestination (Romans 8:29) of individuals who seem to have no choices (Pharoah Ex. 7:1-5; Judas Acts 1:15-17) Psalm 138 declares, “The Lord will fulfill His purpose for me.” It’s interesting to read some current neuroscience that says humans have no free will. (Free Will, Sam Harris) Still we are conscious of making choices, of being responsible, of consequences that follow our actions. This book won’t settle these questions; it does offer the opportunity to see individuals wrestling with them and to reflect on how the presence of a loving God changes the equation. In addition the book opens the world of those whose stature sets them apart and expands our appreciation for all God’s children.
Faith Talk Questions:
- Have you read a horoscope in your daily newspaper? Have you ever sought guidance from one or do you know someone who does?
- Is it possible to believe in the Triune God and horoscopes, fate, or luck?
- The members of the Infanta’s court go to worship and pray. Is there an indication that they believe God is involved in their lives?.
- Horoscopes and fate are the same thing in this book. How do they differ from predestination?
- Magdalene explains how fate and free will are related and concludes “the bad becomes good, the good bad, and life, at some moment or another confounds us.” What do you think of this statement?
- Jepp claims that the good events of his life are a “heaven of my own making.” Is this true? Who else has contributed to Jepp’s life?
- Jepp feels that his identity is gone when knowledge of his parentage is revealed. Is he right? What gives us our identity?
- What part does forgiveness play in this story? Whom does Jepp find it hardest to forgive? What part does God play in this forgiveness?
- Psalm 138:8 declares, The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me.” . Does this statement deny free will. Does it seem limiting or encouraging?
- What part does prayer play in Magdalene and Jepp’s life?
This review is written by regular contributor Virginia Thomas.
Jepp, Who Defied the Stars by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.