England in 1377 was a dark, tumultuous, dangerous place. The descendents of King John's nobles who'd sued for liberty by means of the Magna Charta were now far more oppressive than that monarch had ever been, holding their serfs in slavery, levying impossible taxes, and acting as wicked gods in their petty realms. In this context, 13-year-old "Asta's son" ekes out a miserable existence, downtrodden by all and cared for by none save the village priest, Father Quinel.
Who is the boy known only as the son of his marginalized mother? That's what he'd like to know, though he has no real ambition to find out—for his entire life he's been told and treated as though he's worthless. When the town steward, John Aycliffe, falsely accuses Asta's son of theft and declares him a wolf's head (a person less-than-human who may be killed by anyone without fear of retribution), the boy is forced to flee into a cruel, wonderful, strange world he knows nothing about.
Along the way we get poignant glimpses of both Medieval England and the worldview of its people, who were just on the verge of widening their cultural and academic boundaries through the opportunities of the Renaissance. Avi's grasp of this world so different from our own is impressive, and he ushers us into it with ease and clarity. At least one real historical figure makes an appearance (John Ball, a priest involved in Wat Tyler's 1382 Peasants' Revolt), and his portrait is consistent with the historical records.
The juggler Bear who adopts Asta's son is clearly meant to be part of the famous Lollard movement. The Lollards were deeply influenced by John Wycliffe, often called the Morning Star of the Reformation, and while some of them verged on the obscene with their anti-Papist antics, Bear is a more well-reasoned and pious Lollard. It should be noted that Bear and others use religious oaths throughout the novel that most would find offensive, though they are true to the speech of 14th century Christians.
Once more, the schizophrenia of the Newbery panel of judges displays itself. Crispin: The Cross of Lead is explicitly Christian throughout. Whether that's a conceit the author maintains for the sake of his story or it stems from his actual convictions doesn't matter: he accurately portrays Medieval Christianity without irony and without ridicule. Avi also avoids the common pitfall of simply portraying all Middle Ages denizens as backward and superstitious.
For thrill-seekers, there's plenty of adventure and action here. For fans of historical fiction, there's substantial detail, pageantry, and atmosphere. For those who like a thoughtful story, the inner journey of Asta's boy provides plenty of food for thought. For those who like mysteries, they'll get their fix, too. This is literally a novel for just about everyone (except those who don't like a good story well-told), and it's likely to outlast many other books currently touted as "the best in children's literature."
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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