By Awnali Mills
There are three children, and a dog. Jeanne is the only girl. She is a French peasant who has fits during which she sees the future. There is Jacob, a Jewish boy whose village is destroyed by fire. His knowledge of plants combined with a recitation of the Shema brings about miraculous healing. William is a giant of a boy, half white, half African, who does amazing acts of strength. And the dog, Gwenforte, was killed, but rose again.
Three miraculous children and a dog in medieval France are trying to right a wrong, and are being pursued by the king. They have become so well known that a group of travelers gathers in an inn, each person telling a bit of their story to the others, like a recreation of The Canterbury Tales. Along the way, their lives will teach us about discrimination, justice, God, and living at peace with our fellow man.
Oh, yeah. There’s also a dragon with deadly farts. Don’t forget him.
My coworker read this book and told me how wonderful it was. I looked at the cover and shrugged. The Inquisitor’s Tale? I hate stories of the Inquisition. They make me feel angry and impotent. I passed. Then, I read another glowing review online. Really? I reluctantly decided that this might be an important book, so I should read it. (And, yeah, there’s a dragon with deadly farts, so it couldn’t be all that bad, right?)
I’m so glad I did. This is a great book, and the illustrations compliment the story perfectly. There are so many layers of meaning here that I don’t doubt that it has classic potential. I am not Catholic, and didn’t grow up with the automatic acceptance of the miraculous as done by regular folks (Bible folks are a different matter). The miracles presented in the book (particularly William’s battle) were a bit disorienting for me. Like, are you kidding me? But the matter-of-fact way they are presented are so true to the time period that you just sort of move past them and go on. And they become believable (or at least less weird—the donkey’s leg is a sticking point for me.)
Gidwitz spent years researching this story, so it’s historically accurate. Several of his characters were real people, and other characters and events are based on stories from the time period. Gidwitz uses the children to teach us about the way that people who were different were treated in the Middle Ages. William is black, so people think he’s wearing a mask. He’s large, so he’s scary. Jacob is Jewish, so he is someone without place or protection. Jeanne is a peasant, and a girl: automatically someone to discount and abuse. And yet these children are the ones God has chosen to perform miracles. This sets their world on fire. Is this truth? Is it heresy? Everyone (including the children) is trying to figure this out. Watching this tension play out in the book enables us to look at our own world and think about how we treat others, and what assumptions we’re using to justify our treatment of them.
One final note. Because of my faith background, I am always wary of religion being portrayed in books. I hate when religious people are depicted as racist, evil, backwards bumpkins. You all know the stereotype. Gidwitz does a lovely job of accurately portraying people of faith as human, fallible people. He portrays both the good and the bad, but most of his characters are a mix of the two, which I find to be the biggest truth.