I think everyone has an author whose work they will unreservedly rush out and buy no matter what. Adam Gidwitz is it for me. I read his debut novel, A Tale Dark and Grimm, a few years ago, and I was blown away. It was one of the cleverest books for children I had ever read. It has massive kid appeal, but it was also super sharp. I became a devoted fan and devoured the rest of the trilogy. I have to admit that I didn’t love the final installment, but that didn’t do much to quell my overall ardor.
So, when I saw this on the shelf – a fantastical Canterbury Tales pastiche that explores prejudice, religion and book banning WITH illustrations – I basically threw all my money at the cashier and ran out the door with the book.
“Ale for a tale. That’s the fairest trade I know.”
A quick plot summary – The book opens at an inn with various strangers discussing three children and a dog who are being hunted by the King of France for heresy. Each stranger shares a little of what they know of the children with each new narrative building on the last. We learn that Jeanne, a peasant girl, sees visions of the future; William, a mixed race monk, leaves his monastery when his super human strength is revealed; and Jacob, a Jewish boy, discovers he has miraculous healing powers when his village is burned by malicious Christians. Accompanying them all is a dog named Gwenforte who rose from the dead after being venerated as a saint. How and why did this motley crew meet up and why are they so far out of favor with the king??
The story is funny, full of adventure, and, above all, very thoughtful. The book explores the complexities of prejudice – how people can hold contradictory beliefs and behave in confusing ways that are at odds with what they say and think. The book also confronts some of the big questions of life and religion in a pretty bold manner. I think this will make some readers deeply uncomfortable as Gidwitz definitely leans towards a universalist view of humanity and salvation.
I think the only weakness of the book is that some of the characters feel a bit like cardboard cutouts of ‘types’. Jeanne and Jacob, for example, never felt fully fleshed out to me. William, on the other hand, was full of life. As such, he was, hands down, our favorite character. Honestly though, I’m nitpicking at this point. It’s a fantastic book!
And finally, the illustrations – they were such fun! There are no full page illustrations, rather the majority of pages offer an illustrative running commentary on the story in the margins. As the introduction explains, these attempt to mimic the style of Medieval marginalia which is sometimes relevant to the story, but other times completely bizarre and at odds with the story.