Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert-Murdock, illustrations by Ian Schoenherr

When I was in grad school, I had a passion for the medieval period. Unfortunately, I was in a small German department that didn't have its own medievalist, though we did have some wonderful visiting professors. Still, it meant I couldn't write my first choice dissertation. Nevertheless, I continue to have a soft spot for books set during this time period, which is why I was drawn to The Book of Boy.

The story begins in France in 1350, shortly after the plague* had swept through. Boy is tending the goats at the manor of Sir Jacques, a knight with a traumatic brain injury from a joust and who can no longer speak or move. Boy is an excellent jumper and climber despite the large hump on his back, and also has the unique ability to understand what animals are thinking.

One day, a pilgrim named Secundus arrives at the manor, sees Boy's climbing ability, and convinces the cook, now the wife of Sir Jacques, to let him take Boy on his pilgrimage. Secundus is collecting seven relics of St. Peter, which are to be found throughout France and Rome. Secundus, who is quite ill, believes that if he can collect all seven relics, he will be allowed to enter Paradise when he dies, and be reunited with his wife and child, both of whom died from the plague. Needless to say, Secundus didn't exactly lead a good, honest life, which is why he needs the relics.

As the two travel, it soon becomes clear to Boy that their journey isn't the honest quest he believed it would be. Instead, Secundus drags Boy into some pretty shady situations, stealing, fighting, and getting in all kinds of dangerous situations. Even though Boy knows what they are doing is wrong, he stays with Secundus for his own reasons - maybe, just maybe, if they make it to Rome, he will get his wish to be a "real boy."

Boy has always been picked on and bullied because of his hump. He had been told never to reveal himself to anyone by Father Petrus, who had cared for Boy until he too died from the plague, and Boy always thought it was because of his hump. But, as the story moves along, Boy becomes more and more aware of who he is. And it is definitely not who he thought he was (and, given this twist, he was not who I thought he was, either).

The Book of Boy is narrated by Boy, who gives the readers a wonderfully informative window into life during the medieval period, particularly what happened during the height of the plague in France, and the fears of its return. He is a wonderful character, a really sweet innocent, despite being an outcast who has been bullied, ridiculed, and physically attacked all his life. At first, I was a little turned off by his ability to understand what animals were thinking, but as the story progressed, I found it to be more and more interesting, a unique way of providing the reader with necessary information. Consequently, for that reason and others, this book becomes a nice mix of realistic and fantastic fiction.

Secundus, who always smells like brimstone to Boy, is as mysterious a character as Boy. A scoundrel and a thief, his story is slowly revealed along with Boy's and by the time the novel ends, readers will surely realize that sometimes people just aren't who they appear to be. But getting to that point is quite a journey.

The Book of Boy is fast, informative, at times cruel, and at other times, fun, particularly some of the conversations between Boy and various animals. I sat down to read it one evening and didn't get up until I finished. And I spent lots of time studying the wonderful woodcut-style illustrations by Ian Schoenherr. Pay attention to the cover - it traces the quest of Secundus and Boy in a most interesting way.

The Book of Boy satisfied my medieval cravings like no book has recently. It is an interesting quest into what is good and what is evil, and why, and hopefully, Boy's story will serve as a nice addition to books for young readers about this underrepresented time period.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

*The plague referred to in this book is often called the Black Death. It swept across Europe and Britain between 1347 to 1353, and it is believed that 75 to 200 million people died from it. At the time, no one knew what cause the plague, only that it spread rapidly. Below is a map that shows the spread of the plague:
Source: Wikipedia: Spread of the Black Death in Europe and the Near East

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