The Inquisitor’s Tale or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog
By Adam Gidwitz
Illuminated by Hatem Aly
Dutton Children’s Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
Ages 9 and up
On shelves September 27th
God’s hot this year.
To be fair, God has had some fairly strong supporters for quite some time. So if I’m going to clarify that statement a tad, God’s hot in children’s literature this year. Even then, that sentence is pretty vague. Here in America there are loads of Christian book publishers out there, systematically putting out title after title after title each and every year about God, to say nothing of publishers of other religions as well. Their production hasn’t increased hugely in 2016, so why the blanket statement? A final clarification, then: God is hot in children’s books from major non-Christian publishers this year. Ahhhh. That’s better. Indeed, in a year when serious literary consideration is being heaped upon books like John Hendrix’s Miracle Man, in walks Adam Gidwitz and his game changing The Inquisitor’s Tale. Now I have read my fair share of middle grade novels for kids, and I tell you straight out that I have never read a book like this. It’s weird, and unfamiliar, and religious, and irreligious, and more fun than it has any right to be. Quite simply, Gidwitz found himself a holy dog, added in a couple proto-saints, and voila! A book that’s part superhero story, part quixotic holy quest, and part Canterbury Tales with just a whiff of intrusive narration for spice. In short, nothing you’ve encountered in all your livelong days. Bon appétit.
The dog was dead to begin with. A greyhound with a golden muzzle that was martyred in defense of a helpless baby. As various pub goers gather in the year 1242 to catch a glimpse of the king, they start telling stories about this dog that came back from the dead, its vision-prone mistress (a peasant girl named Jeanne), a young monk blessed with inhuman strength (William, son of a lord and a North African woman), and a young Jewish boy with healing capabilities (Jacob). These three very different kids have joined together in the midst of a country in upheaval. Some see them as saints, some as the devil incarnate, and before this tale is told, the King of France himself will seek their very heads. An extensive Author’s Note and Annotated Bibliography appear at the end.
If you are familiar with Mr. Gidwitz’s previous foray into middle grade literature (the Grimm series) then you know he has a penchant for giving the child reader what it wants. Which is to say, blood. Lots of it. In his previous books he took his cue from the Grimm brothers and their blood-soaked tales. Here his focus is squarely on the Middle Ages (he would thank you not to call them “The Dark Ages”), a time period that did not lack for gore. The carnage doesn’t really begin in earnest until William starts (literally) busting heads, and even then the book feels far less sanguine than Gidwitz’s other efforts. I mean, sure, dogs die and folks are burned alive, but that’s pretty tame by Adam’s previous standards. Of course, what he lacks in disembowelments he makes up for with old stand-bys like vomit and farts. Few can match the man’s acuity for disgusting descriptions. He is a master of the explicit and kids just eat that up. Not literally of course. That would be gross. As a side note, he has probably included the word “ass” more times in this book than all the works of J.M. Barrie and Roald Dahl combined. I suspect that if this book is ever challenged in schools or libraries it won’t be for the copious entrails or discussions about God, but rather because at one point the word “ass” (as it refers to a donkey) appears three times in quick, unapologetic succession. And yes, it’s hilarious when it does.
So let’s talk religious persecution, religious fundamentalism, and religious tolerance. As I write this review in 2016 and politicians bandy hate speech about without so much as a blink, I can’t think of a book written for kids more timely than this. Last year I asked a question of my readers: Can a historical children’s book contain protagonists with prejudices consistent with their time period? Mr. Gidwitz seeks to answer that question himself. His three heroes are not shining examples of religious tolerance born of no outside influence. When they escape together they find that they are VERY uncomfortable in one another’s presence. Mind you, I found William far more tolerant of Jacob than I expected (though he does admittedly condemn Judaism once in the text). His dislike of women is an interesting example of someone rejecting some but not all of the childhood lessons he learned as a monk. Yet all three kids fear one another as unknown elements and it takes time and a mutually agreed upon goal to get them from companionship to real friendship.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, religion doesn’t usually get much notice in middle grade books for kids from major publishers these days. And you certainly won’t find discussions about the differences between Christianity and Judaism, as when the knight Marmeluc tries to determine precisely what it is to be Jewish. What I appreciated about this book was how Gidwitz distinguished between the kind of Christianity practiced by the peasants versus the kind practiced by the educated and rich. The peasants have no problem worshipping dogs as saints and even the local priest has a wife that everyone knows he technically isn’t supposed to have. The educated and rich then move to stamp out these localized beliefs which, let’s face it, harken back to the people’s ancestors’ paganism.
Race also comes up a bit, with William’s heritage playing a part now and then, but the real focus is reserved for the history of Christian/Jewish interactions. Indeed, in his wildly extensive Author’s Note at the end, Gidwitz makes note of the fact that race relations in Medieval Europe were very different then than today. Since it preceded the transatlantic slave trade, skin color was rare and contemporary racism remains, “the modern world’s special invention.” There will probably still be objections to the black character having the strength superpower rather than the visions or healing, but he’s also the best educated and intelligent of the three. I don’t think you can ignore that fact.
As for the writing itself, that’s what you’re paying your money for at the end of the day. Gidwitz is on fire here, making medieval history feel fresh and current. For example, when the Jongleur says that some knights are, “rich boys who’ve been to the wars . . . Not proper at all. But still rich,” that’s a character note slid slyly into the storytelling. Other lines pop out at you too. Here are some of my other favorites:
• About that Jongleur, “… he looks like the kind of child who has seen too much of life, who’s seen more than most adults. His eyes are both sharp and dead at the same time. As if he won’t miss anything, because he’s seen it all already.”
• “Jeanne’s mother’s gaze lingered on her daughter another moment, like an innkeeper waiting for the last drop of ale from the barrel tap.”
• “The lord and lady welcomed the knights warmly. Well, the lady did. Lord Bertulf just sat in his chair behind the table, like a stick of butter slowly melting.”
• “Inside her, grand castles of comprehension, models of the world as she had understood it, shivered.”
• And Gidwitz may also be the only author for children who can write a sentence that begins, “But these marginalia contradicted the text…” and get away with it.
Mind you, Gidwitz paints himself into a pretty little corner fairly early on. To rest this story almost entirely on the telling of tales in a pub, you need someone who doesn’t just know the facts of one moment or the next but who could claim to know our heroes’ interior life. So each teller comes to mention each child’s thoughts and feelings in the course of their tale. The nun in the book bears the brunt of this sin, and rather than just let that go Gidwitz continually has characters saying things like, “I want to know if I’m sitting at a table filled with wizards and mind readers.” I’m not sure if I like the degree to which Gidwitz keeps bringing this objection up, or if it detracts from the reading. What I do know is that he sort of cheats with the nun. She’s the book’s deux ex machina (or, possibly the diaboli ex machina) acting partly as an impossibility and partly as an ode to the author’s love of silver haired librarians and teachers out there with “sparkling eyes, and a knowing smile.”
Since a large portion of the story is taken up with saving books as objects, it fits that this book itself should be outfitted with all the beauties of its kind. If we drill down to the very mechanics of the book, we find ourselves admiring the subtleties of fonts. Every time a tale switches between the present day and the story being told, the font changes as well. But to do it justice, the story has been illuminated (after a fashion) by artist Hatem Aly. I have not had the opportunity to see the bulk of his work on this story. I do feel that the cover illustration of William is insufficiently gargantuan, but that’s the kind of thing they can correct in the paperback edition anyway.
Fairy tales and tales of saints. The two have far more in common than either would like to admit. Seen in that light, Gidwitz’s transition from pure unadulterated Grimm to, say, Lives of the Improbable Saints and Legends of the Improbable Saints is relatively logical. Yet here we have a man who has found a way to tie-in stories about religious figures to the anti-Semitism that is still with us to this day. At the end of his Author’s Note, Gidwitz mentions that as he finished this book, more than one hundred and forty people were killed in Paris by terrorists. He writes of Medieval Europe, “It was a time when people were redefining how they lived with the ‘other,’ with people who were different from them.” The echoes reverberate today. Says Gidwitz, “I can think of nothing sane to say about this except this book.” Sermonizers, take note.
On shelves September 27th.
Like This? Then Try:
- Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, ill. Robert Byrd
- The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
- Crispin, the Cross of Lead by Avi