The Inquisitor's Tale

The Librarian's Tale:

The Inquisitor's Tale is the Canterbury Tales-inspired middle grade novel that you never knew you always needed. I promise you that you will not be disappointed if you read this. If you are, I will do some sort of medieval penance.

Okay, so maybe not medieval penance. That stuff was off the hook scary. Hairshirts and scourges and an annual bath.

Anyway, I knew from meeting Adam Gidwitz at BEA 2016 that I could expect a farting dragon, which is most excellent, but I didn't realize how deeply and thoughtfully this book would discuss things like religious persecution, the nature of faith, and what makes a person truly a saint.

Don't worry, Gidwitz's signature humor is still there, but it's been illuminated and embellished (also quite literally, with the beautiful illustrations by Harem Aly). There were times I found myself wondering "This is a middle grade book?  These are pretty deep themes..." but then I remembered the lesson of his Grimm trilogy: kids can handle a lot more than we give them credit for. The little ones thirst for the bloody, dark versions of Real Grimm as opposed to Bowdlerized Grimm, because kids are violent little beasts.

The Inquisitor's Tale follows the structure of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, with a collector of tales and various customers in a country inn contributing to the story of the three children who are the most wanted people in France. It is the reign of Louis IX, aka Saint Louis. As a French major, I have serious issues with his beatification, but then again, I am not a Catholic, so I suppose it doesn't matter. Plus, Gidwitz paints him as a complex character, which may be more than Louis deserves, but it does make for a much more nuanced picture of the French king. All parenthetical criticism of the beatification of murderers aside, the scene opens on a crowded tavern in the countryside. Everyone is talking about the three fugitive children who are alternately described as saints or witches, and who Louis IX wants to destroy. But who are they? How did they become friends? What's with the holy greyhound bit, anyway?

Thankfully, everyone in the inn knows a piece of the story, and our narrator (who, if you hadn't guessed by the first chapter, is the titular inquisitor) keeps the ball rolling.

William, the eldest of the three magical children, is a novitiate whose abbey sends him as guard to a wagonload of books after his prodigious--and perhaps supernatural--strength causes him to shatter a solid stone bench with one blow.  But do not think that he's just the muscle of the group, even though he is gigantic physically.  William is also the most well-read, pensive, and gentle--he was training to be a monk, after all.  He's also rightfully rather sensitive when people call him "the Saracen."  His mother was from some part of Africa to which his absent father traveled in the Crusades, so William is mixed.

Jeanne, who runs the risk of being the most stereotypical character in the book (being based on Jeanne d'Arc and all that), thankfully only shares a few attributes with her namesake.  She does not lead armies or dress like a boy.  Jeanne is no soldier--but she does have divine visions of the future.  This peasant girl is kind, brave, gentle, and accompanied by the recently resurrected greyhound (Saint) Gwenforte.

Finally, there is Jacob. After a band of rampaging Christians burns his village to the ground and kills his parents, he heads off in search of a famous rabbi for refuge. To make a grand understatement, being Jewish in Medieval Europe, particularly France, was Not An Easy Thing. So when Jacob discovers that he can heal grievous wounds with the application of herbs and prayer, he's frightened.

As each child goes on his or her way, strange and wondrous things begin to happen; when they join up as a group, it is signs and marvels indeed. It's not exactly easy going at first: William fears Jeanne because she is a girl, and as we all know, girls are a sore temptation to monks, and he fears Jacob because he is a Jew.  Jacob fears William because he is a) enormous and b) a monk. All three of the children fear Michelango di Bologna, a giant, rubicund monk who is hunting them, along with a band of dishonored Crusaders. However, none of the children has ever truly had a friend before, and now here is the opportunity. Misfit saints become best friends.

I won't spoil the story for you, as it must be experienced to be fully appreciated. However, I am completely bowled over by the complexity and nuance of both plot and characterization. Characters who may seem to be completely wicked have at least one tiny redeeming quality, and the three holy children are certainly not perfect. William is often distraught about losing his ass, for instance.  Yes, I guffawed at that joke, old as it may be. No one is black and white, and even in conclusion, Gidwitz leaves the readers with much to ponder. He's not going to give you all of the answers--you must work them out for yourself. Who is the silver-haired nun who knows all? I have my theories, but you must come to your own conclusion. Is Gwen the greyhound really a saint? Again, that's up to you. Life is like this: messy, complicated, and sorely lacking in absolute truth. As much as we want solid, clear answers to life's problems, we don't get them.

The Inquisitor's Tale tackles both religion and fear of The Other in a beautiful way that is almost prescient. Characters talk about deep subjects like the nature of God, true religion, skin color, and fear of the unknown in a way that is easy to understand and also beautifully moving. Some parents will be put off by a frank discussion of faith and religion (I once had a parent go off on Because of Winn-Dixie because of its "constant discussion of religion"), but they are missing out on an opportunity to use fiction to speak with their children. No matter who you are or what you believe, it's vitally important to speak with your children about what they believe and about tolerance for others. Everyone believes something, even if that belief is in nothing at all. This is a story to be read together, discussed, and digested.

However, for all that it discusses extraordinary events, The Inquisitor's Tale remains solidly a tale of the human condition and the human soul. The three children are any child and every child: the children who are cast out for being different, who are feared because of their skin color, or mocked because of their beliefs. And yet, despite being pursued by bloodthirsty knights and evil monks and even the King of France himself, they survive because of reliance on each other and faith that doing the right thing is always the best choice.

Gidwitz provides extensive endnotes on his research and the historical basis of many of the characters and situations, but he also leaves little Easter eggs for history geeks like me to find.  For example, one of the jongleurs in the inn is named Chrétien, for Chrétien de Troyes, the famous troubadour.  Granted, de Troyes lived in the previous century (this book is set in 1242), but he has de Troyes' style and look.  After enduring a semester in Paris solely discussing the political subtext of medieval poetry, I find that my time parsing middle French was not entirely wasted.

This is a most worthy book. Yes, it has a farting dragon, skulls being bashed in, and killer quicksand, as any Gidwitz book would demand, but it's also a necessary meditation on faith, humanity, and purpose in life.


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