Will is on the run in this new novel of the Renaissance by Karen Cushman, who won the Newbery Medal for A Midwife’s Apprentice. Will’s mother left when he was little, and his father has now sold him to an innkeeper in exchange for some ale. If the innkeeper asks him to do something and Will disobeys, he will sell him to the chimney sweeps. Will knows that would be a short, sickly life, so he runs away, only planning as far as staying alive and finding food. Along the way, he meets a pickpocket, a young lord, a dwarf, a blind juggler, and a “purveyor of oddities and prodigies,” who offers him a job and then neglects to pay him.
Will Sparrow is Cushman’s first male protagonist, and he is not immediately likeable. Although he becomes a part of what we now call a Renaissance Faire, it is not at all romantic or beautiful. Master Tidball, Will’s employer, charges admission to a tent full of what he calls oddities, deformed creatures in glass bottles, some of which are fakes, but some are real. He wants the dwarf, Fitz, to do tricks and the cat-faced girl, Grace, to act like a wild animal. He calls them creatures and does not afford them the respect given to human beings. Cushman does not give Will supernatural virtues. As an uneducated boy of his time, he is just as fascinated by Fitz and Grace as the people paying their pennies to gawk at them, but he stays with the traveling show because he gets dinner every night.
I do have a soft spot for road-trip stories, and this one is filled with adventure and humor, which cushions the ugly truths that Cushman is showing us. There is no sweet, motherly figure who swoops in, takes Will home, and feeds him. He never becomes someone’s beloved little boy who goes to work on the family farm. However, Cushman shines a light on the twisted things of this world to help us to see true beauty within. Grace has a condition called hypertrichosis, a very rare genetic disorder that makes people exceptionally hairy. Instead of going to a doctor, as we would today, her family sold her to a travelling circus. It takes a long time for Will to see beyond outward appearances, but several difficult and revealing events help to mold him into a compassionate and mature young man.
Karen Cushman is a very engaging writer who specializes in the medieval and Renaissance time periods. I would recommend this absorbing novel to anyone, especially boys, between nine and fourteen years old.