Jeanne, William and Jacob are all outcasts. Plagued with seizures and visions, Jeanne has been accused of witchcraft. William, the illegitimate son of a knight and Saracen woman is so large and strong he can destroy chairs hewn from rock. Jacob is an orphaned Jewish boy, hiding his identity from the anti-Semitic society that surrounds him.
A chance meeting brings the three children together, and they join forces to save copies of the Talmud from being burned In Paris. They are accompanied by Gwenforte, a dog that saves Jeanne in her infancy, is killed by Jeanne’s parents but then venerated as a saint and eventually comes back to life. Their journey involves bloody violence and nauseating scenes that exaggerate the coarser aspects of Medieval life.
Anyone looking for a one-sided view of the Medieval Era will consider this an ideal read. Few children’s books present the Catholic Church with such inaccuracy and contempt. Gidwitz’s book is acclaimed as well-researched, but a closer look at his bibliography shows a bias. For example, Gidwitz proposes Peter Abelard, author of Sic et Non, as “one of the most famous and most important theologians of the Middle Ages”. What he does not explain to ingenuous young readers is that after challenging St. Bernard to a debate and losing miserably, Abelard recanted and spent the rest of his life in a monastery. Gidwitz also alludes to Abelard’s romantic relationship with more information than pre-teens need to know.
Gidwitz’s portrayal of the Church’s tradition of venerating saints is a mockery. The four travelers are each acclaimed as “holy”, including the dog, simply because they perform “miracles”. The fact that William uses his strength to kill without any remorse or that Jacob is simply a very good botanist does not reflect holiness. Indeed, Gidwtiz cites many extraordinary examples of saints while ignoring the requirement of personal virtue. Then there is the character “Michelangelo”, St. Michael in disguise, who convinces Jeanne that it is OK to lie to accomplish their mission, a most un-angelic way to approach a problem. Gidwitz throws in some anti-intellectual monks (how hackeneyed!) and an ale chugging nun who turns out to be the devil incarnate for good measure.
Historical fiction is not accurate if it does not demonstrate the good and the bad. No one can deny that there was prejudice, censorship and superstition in the Middle Ages. Gidwitz’s book, however, does not present the whole story. He claims:
I hope, if nothing else, this book has convinced you that the Middle Ages were not “dark” (never call them the Dark Ages!), but rather an amazing, vibrant, dynamic period. Universities were invented, the modern financial system was born…”
What he fails to tell his readers is that the Catholic Church was responsible for those developments as well as many others. Gidwitz’s portrayal of the Medieval world is, indeed, very dark, defeating his purpose. His attempt to promote tolerance amounts to yet another example prejudice.
Jennifer Minicus is a teacher currently living in Ridgewood, NJ.