4 out of 5 Stars
We have been finding fantasy a lot of fun to read these days and I am finding it is something I look for when I am walking through the mid-level/young adult areas of our local independent bookstores. Recently I saw a special stand at Annie Bloom’s Book Store with several copies of “The Inquisitor’s Tale” by Adam Gidwitz. I was not familiar with Mr. Gidwitz’s previous books which feature a series of “Grimm” Stories. It seems I need to check these out though because word on the street is they are very popular and I have a strong feeling my child will love them.
“The Inquisitor’s tale” is a departure from the Grimm Series and is a story he imagined and wrote while living in France for a year. The book takes place in 1242, during the Middle Ages (he begs you not to call them the Dark Ages) and tells the story of 3 children who cross paths and befriend one another. They are joined on their journey by a magical dog, a greyhound called Gwenforte. The story starts with the tale of Jeanne – a peasant girl who lives in a village with her family. They are farmers and they have several animals, one being a most beloved dog. This dog, called Gwenforte is in the hut with Jeanne and she is a sleeping baby being stalked by a black adder – which is a very poisonous snake. Gwenforte jumps to action and kills the snake but get the snakes blood everywhere. When Jeanne’s parents return they find the blood but can’t find the baby and they think Gwenforte has killed her. They take the dog outside and kill it only to find the baby was buried in blankets. They realize what happened and dog is buried and later worshiped which goes against everything the church and royalty believe. 10 years later Jeanne finds herself reunited with the dog (a miracle where Gwenforte comes back to life) and being chased by knights that have been ordered to bring her in. To make matters worse, Jeanne has visions of the future – not a good thing in this time! Through Jeanne’s story we learn about the lives of peasants during this time period. They were just one step above being slaves and made up 90% of the population. Gidwitz tells you about their living conditions and what their lives looked like.
The next child we meet is a boy who is very tall called William. He has been told he is the son of a Lord who was fighting Muslims in Spain (this was during the time of the Crusades) and his mother was from Northern Africa. Kids who were bi-racial back then were called ‘Saracens” and during this time William would really have stood out. Not just because of his height, because he stood heads above everyone, but because of his appearance: he had darker skin and black hair. They didn’t have the same feelings towards people who look different that some have today, but it might be the first time a person in France may have seen someone who had darker skin which could be rather shocking. To make matter worse, William has incredible strength where he can bust stones (and heads) and is a very strong fighter when the need arises. He was left to live in a monastery as a baby and was an oblate (a pupil) there before his jouney. Because he is so big and strong they are having a hard time keeping up with being able to feed him and give him a bag of books he needs to take to Saint Denis. He sets off and this is the start of his adventure. We learn about different aspects of early Christianity through William.
Lastly we are introduced to a Jewish boy called Jacob. His story begins with a group of Christians burning his village down. His parents are able to get him out of the house and tell him they will meet him at his uncle’s house. He runs and later learns they were not able to get out of the house in time. He also has special powers of healing and this comes in very handy during their journey. We learn about the way Jews were treated during this time through Jacob’s experiences.
The children’s various tales are told through a menagerie of travelers who meet up at a pub and an “Inquisitor” is taking down their story. I love the different characters we are introduced to here and some of them leave us wondering just how they knew such details of the children’s journey! We learn things through them as well, not just about the children, but about their lives and how they live.
I really enjoyed this book for several reasons. I like the historical bits and pieces that the book is based on. In fact at the back of the book is an “Authors Note: Where did this story come from?” section that tells you where Mr. Gidwitz got his ideas. Some of the people in this book are real and some are not. This section gives background on each of them. After finishing the book and reading that part, I almost wished I had read that before the book! That is my advice to you. He takes some liberties with the French Royalty and different characters (and admits that) but it is all for the good of the story. It is meant to be fiction after all!
I also appreciate the differences the children each have and how they are scared of each other to begin with. They have to get past their differences in order to move on and work together and this is something I really think is important for kids to see in literature. Jacob is scared of William because he is Christian, William is scared of Jeanne because she is a girl, William is also a bit demeaning to Jacob at first because of their differing religious beliefs. In spite of all of that they talk to each other, open their hearts, learn to trust and are able to learn about each other and appreciate those differences. Gwenforte the dog tends to bring everyone together, over and over again and is kind of the glue that holds a lot of this together at first. These lessons of building friendships and strong relationships despite stark differences in beliefs and lifestyles is so important, especially with the state of the world today.
The book is flat out gorgeous too. Kids will love the illustrations throughout the book. Hatem Aly was the illustrator and he wanted to illustrate the book as a medieval text might have been with actions or ideas that are in the story, doodles that have nothing at all to do with the story, and some times questions or contradictions to what we are reading. This was very common in medieval manuscripts and I just loved having the edges decorated with various figures and scenes. It added a bit of humor in a different way (the book actually has a lot of humor throughout) and I just really appreciated his style.
This book, I hear, isn’t as gruesome as the other books that Mr. Gidwitz has written, but there is a point where William actually busts heads together (killing attackers) and there is a point where “Big Red Wicked” is burned alive. They tend to be quickly described but in the case of the Michelangelo (aka Big Red Wicked), they are haunted by that image and it is brought up several times as the kids come to grips with the situation. My 10-year-old will be fine with that stuff (in fact I am sure I will hear all about it) but it might be hard for some kids to take. You will need to judge that. I will say the fighting isn’t gratuitous but serves to show how volatile and tough times were. On the flip side I also feel there is a great deal of planning on behalf of the characters to avoid a violent outcome and the kids even end up saving the day for some folks.
I felt like this was a wonderful book and it turns out librarians have agreed with me as it was the 2017 Newbery Honor Book Winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. Check this one out!