Review by Becky Laney, frequent contributor.
I honestly didn't know what to expect from this one. Not the most clever way to start out a review, but true nevertheless. The cover. I was not easily won over with the cover. It is ugly and unappealing. It doesn't shout out "read me, read me." But I'd heard good things about it, of course, and it did win the Newbery in 2003. So I knew that I had to get past my initial misgivings.
Here's how it begins:
England, A.D. 1377 "In the midst of life comes death." How often did our village priest preach those words. Yet I have also heard that "in the midst of death comes life." If this be a riddle, so was my life. The day after my mother died, the priest and I wrapped her body in a gray shroud and carried her to the village church. Our burden was not great. In life she had been a small woman with little strength. Death made her even less. Her name had been Asta.
Our narrator is a young boy. At first, we only know him as Asta's son. Later his real name is revealed, Crispin. Here is a young boy, a peasant, tied to the land for life. But the day after his mother's funeral everything changes. (Or maybe it's the day of his mother's funeral.)
Told by John Aycliffe (boo, hiss) that he must return the ox to the manor since his mother is dead (and he's now an orphan) he is told that he can starve. His life, his welfare is of no concern for this substitute lord-of-the-manor. Upset, he runs into the woods. He's working out his emotions--anger, grief, confusion, etc., but a fall and a bump on the head changes his life. Or you could say saves his life. He wakes up at some point during the night. He sees two men. One is John Aycliffe (boo, hiss) and the other is unknown to him at that time. What he hears confuses him. He can't make sense of it. But when he is seen, he gets a sick feeling that his life is in danger.
He is able to get away and hide for the rest of that night and the day. But the next night, he makes his way to his trusted friend, the priest, Father Quinel. What the priest tells him doesn't erase his questions. If anything, it just adds to his confusion. He's told that his mother could read and write. He's told that he was baptized (albeit secretly) Crispin. He's told that he MUST flee for his life. That John Aycliffe (boo, hiss) has started spreading lies about him. Accused him of theft. Is offering an award for whoever kills him. The priest gives him a few things to do on his own, and makes arrangement to meet him again before the two part ways forever.
His errand? To go to Goodwife Peregrine's house and pick up a cross of lead. But on his way to meet the priest one last time, the time where all would be revealed, he is met by another man instead. A man who claims he comes in the priest's place. But something doesn't feel right.
Crispin doesn't know who he is or exactly why John Aycliffe (boo, hiss) is out to kill him. Why Aycliffe (boo, hiss) wants him dead so very badly. He doesn't know who he is or where he needs to go, he just knows that his life is in danger and he is being pursued relentlessly.
Crispin's journey could have been a lonely one. But he meets an unusual friend, a man called Bear, who takes him under his protection. Together they try to make sense of it all. But the journey won't be easy.
I loved this book. I can easily see now why it won the Newbery. I definitely recommend this one to lovers of historical fiction. Also for those that love coming-of-age novels.