Jeanne is a young peasant girl who sees visions that foretell the future with disturbing accuracy. She runs away when she is accused of worshipping the holy greyhound, Gwenforte, who was killed and has risen from the dead. She doesn’t worship the dog; she loves her. Jacob is a Jewish boy whose village was burned by Christian youths, and he is trying to find his parents. William is a gigantic young monk whose dark skin betrays the fact that his Crusading father impregnated a Muslim girl from Africa, then dumped his own son in a monastery. William’s temper makes it difficult for him to remain there, though, so he is being sent on a mission to bring some holy books to the abbot in Saint Denis. As these children travel through 13th century France, they find one another, form a bond, and set off on a mission to prevent a terrible book-burning. If their purpose is found out, they will be burned along with the books. Every new acquaintance could be a traitor or a protector. Sometimes, appearances can be deceiving.
Gidwitz felicitously structures this story much like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A group of travelers is gathered at an inn, strangers to one another, but each one seems to hold a chapter of the children’s adventures, stories that they share like gossip as they eat their suppers and call for another pint of ale. But who is it who holds all these stories together? The reader does not find out until the tense and surprising conclusion. Illustrator Hatem Aly draws pictures and marginalia that resemble those found in medieval manuscripts, forming the capital letters at the beginning of each chapter and crawling up the edges of pages. Gidwitz wrote this story as he traveled through Europe with his wife, who is a medievalist, and his deep understanding of the age shows through in the details of life in the middle ages: not just the gilded life of the court that we usually see, but also the squalor of the peasants, and the rough power of the landlords, whose houses, though large, were cold and dirty, too.
Devout parents of any of the three major faiths represented may be uncomfortable with the twenty-first century attitude toward religion, as one character states that everyone is praying to the same god, just in different languages. However, in another section, Gidwitz tackles tremendous theological questions, such as the classic, “If God is all good, and God is all powerful, why do these terrible things happen?” He presents two decent and sincere responses from characters with very different perspectives, and he does so with honesty and respect. Similarly, Jews are shown as both the scholarly and gentle rabbis and the rapacious moneylenders that caused them to be expelled from Western Europe. Most of the common people are Christians by default, of course, and the church leaders are portrayed as mostly evil power-mongers, with notable exceptions. True faith is largely absent; rather, faith is in miracles and magical relics. Gidwitz provides an extremely informative author’s note at the end, giving a great deal of historical fact, as well as the backstory to the novel, which was propelled into being when he read a placard in a museum about the burning of 20,000 copies of the Talmud under King Louis IX. Librarians and other book-lovers will rejoice in the novel’s zeal for books.
The Inquisitor’s Tale is a highly original and absorbing story, as notable for its structure and setting as for the compelling plot and likable characters. Although it is written for upper middle grades through middle school, it does contain some mild swearing, including the medieval variety, which could be more unsettling to religious families than modern curse words. The concepts in this book are universal and important, and discussion with adults could help kids to glean even more meaning from the text. It’s covered with starred reviews, so expect some mentions when the awards are given out later this month.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.