In the Newbery Medal winner for 2003, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avilife for Crispin, a boy of thirteen living in England in 1376 A.D, is as it's often said of existence in medieval times: nasty, brutish, and short. He and his mother Asta are peasants, cottars without land of their own, who make a meager living working the Lord Furnival's fields in the little village of Stromford. Crispin has been told that his father died in the last widespread plague. The other village children shun and taunt him for reasons he can't fathom. Then Crispin's mother dies, upon which turn of events Crispin's circumstances become even more nasty and brutal and his life expectancy even more uncertain.
Lord Furnival's steward, John Ayecliffe, first shows up at Asta's funeral demanding that Crispin surrender his ox as death tax, which will mean starvation for Crispin. Then Crispin is seen observing a secret meeting between Ayecliffe and a cloaked stranger in the woods, after which Ayecliffe accuses Crispin of whatever crimes conveniently suggest themselves and puts a price on his head. Crispin receives some hints as to his family history from his few friends and, provided with a little bread and his mother's leaden cross, flees the village for the nearest city as his friends advise, though they aren't exactly sure where any of England's cities are because they’ve never seen them personally. Various adventures ensue, the first and most important of which is that Crispin meets Orson Hrothgar, otherwise known as Bear. Bear is a travelling performer who can sing and dance and juggle balls. He is also adept at smoke and mirror-style political intrigue, and at frightening the wits out of a particularly unsophisticated thirteen-year-old boy.
Haven't we already seen this book in the Newbery list? Let’s see, boy is thrown on his own resources by the death of his strong-willed, yet physically frail and poverty-stricken mother, and he has some keepsake left to him by his mother that turns out to have an unsuspected significance relating to his mysterious antecedents. Oh, and he's embroiled in larger political and military turmoil. No, wait, that's Johnny Tremain, the Newbery-winning book from 1944. And Bud, Not Buddy, the Newbery winner from 2000, which I have read but haven't reviewed yet.
Child on his or her own is a very common theme in children's literature. It's classic wish fulfillment, both a child's greatest fear and worst nightmare. Heaven knows a kid can't have spine-chilling adventures, much less embark on some very important quest, with a parent looking over his or her shoulder and saying it's bedtime or homework time or that it isn't safe to do this or that. And another common theme in kid lit is "mysterious parentage", which taps into another common childhood fantasy, that of belonging to another family, one more exciting and significant, or perhaps just less problematic, than one's own. Tie these themes together, put your adolescent hero or heroine in an exotic and/or historical setting, and it makes for an exciting book for a kid. Hell, I'm 38 and I read Crispin in two sittings on a single day.
Suspenseful as Crispin is, some of the plot twists are contrived to the point that they're an eye roller. I found Ayecliffe's vendetta against Crispin to be rather awkwardly developed. Crispin is a threat to Ayecliffe because of who he is, yet Ayecliffe only sets a price on Crispin's head once Crispin has seen him talking to another man in the woods, though Crispin has neither seen nor heard anything that is incriminating. The kind village priest who helps Crispin, Father Quinel, tells Crispin to hide in the woods for another day and then come back to the church for food and for some information about his mother and himself. Crispin asks why Father Quinel can't do the Big Reveal right then, and the priest tells him it's better and safer to learn such things just before he leaves the village for good. Of course fate in the form of an evil and power-hungry steward intervenes, and Crispin doesn't hear the revelations. Though we do eventually learn what Father Quinel had to tell Crispin, we never learn Father Quinel's reason for delaying the reveal. I suspect the motivations for the delay on both John Ayecliffe's and Father Quinel's parts are really Avi's and have to do with creating suspense. And of course this is an important element in an adventure novel, but so is devising a credible course of action for your characters so that they seem like actual people rather than marionettes whose strings show all too plainly. These trumped-up behaviours reminded me of Dave Barry's parody of The DaVinci Code:
Handsome yet unmarried historian Hugh Heckman stood in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., squinting through the bulletproof glass at the U.S. Constitution. Suddenly, he made an amazing discovery. "My God!" he said, out loud. "This is incredible! Soon I will say what it is."
The character of Bear is quite well drawn. The man is an enigma and his repeated sleight-of-hand behaviours obscure both his motives and his actual beliefs, convincing not only Crispin but even the adult reader (er, this one, anyway). While Crispin is slower to catch on to Bear's misdirections than the reader is, Bear is a complex character who plays his cards close to his tunic and there's enough in play that I finished the book thinking there was still probably more to Bear than had been revealed. This is fortunate as there are two more Crispin books, Crispin: At the Edge of the Worldand Crispin: The End of Timeand Avi needed to save some plot twists for those books.
I did really enjoy that Orson Hrothgar’s nickname Bear is a clever classical allusion. The name Orson is derived from Latin and means "little bear". There is a fifteenth-century romance about twin brothers, Valentine and Orson, based on a fourteenth century chanson de geste which tells the tale of how Orson was raised from infancy by bears while Valentine is given a knight's upbringing at court. The Valentine and Orson story is not directly referenced, but it is a nice meta reference bonus for the adult reader who catches it. And Bear is indeed very much the wild man of the woods that his literary namesake was, as he is huge, loud, aggressive, and has cast aside many of the sociopolitical norms of his time to be what could only be considered a dangerous radical and freethinker by fourteenth-century terms.
The historical setting does seem to be well researched, and the psychology of the characters is probably about as authentic as is possible. Avi does as well as any author could in creating a medieval mindset with its implicit belief in God and the devil, fear of hell, reverence for the priesthood, and some truly creative religiously themed oaths, my favourite of which was, "By the bowels of Christ". Even the most dastardly character in the book is compelled to at least partially respect the binding effect of swearing a vow before God. Crispin does seem to be a little too concerned with his self-esteem in a way that I suspect isn't period appropriate, but then Avi had to make Crispin a boy contemporary readers could relate to.
Relatively minor nitpicks aside, I’d have to say that Crispin is definitely a quite solidly enjoyable book that is exciting, well-written, and rich in accurate period detail, if it does feel a little boilerplate as to its plot. But then I must remember that this is a book that is written primarily for kids, not for an adult who's gotten a little sated on "kid on a quest" books.