This summer, I decided to have a book club with my kids. I have a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, so I decided to make separate lists for each of them. Then, during the summer, we would take turns: on my turn, they’d pick from my list. On their turns, they could choose anything they wanted to read and I’d read it. Then we’d discuss, maybe at a coffee shop over a cookie. Well, Matthew didn’t want to wait until he was out of school (another week!) so we began right away with The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz. And now I’m wondering if anything else we read this summer will live up to it.
This book takes place in medieval France. It brings together three magical children: William, a huge oblate with a Saracen mother; Jeanne, who has visions of the future; and Jacob, a Jewish refugee who can heal any wound. These three, and their miraculous dog, Gwenforte, travel together, at first escaping persecution, and then with a purpose: they must save the Talmuds that the king plans to burn, so that Jewish wisdom can stay alive. Along the way, they encounter brigands, a deadly farting dragon, the sinking sands around Mont St. Michel, and the holy King of France himself (Saint Louis the IX, if you were wondering) among other things.
The book is set up like the Decameron or the Canterbury Tales. People are gathered at a tavern, telling the pieces of the children’s story that they have witnessed, and a narrative arc begins to fit together. Some of these people seem to know more than they should: a demure nun with an impish smile seems to know the children’s very thoughts and feelings. In this way, we witness the friendship between the three children. It’s slow to grow, because they are wary. Each of the three has been isolated and rejected for different reasons: race, religion, the implication of witchcraft. But after tests of loyalty (and thanks in part to Gwenforte) the children learn to know and trust each other as they travel.
Gidwitz doesn’t shy away from the difficult parts of the story. People back away from William, or cast slurs at him, because he looks different from anything they’ve ever seen. The very king of France — a saint! — says how much he hates Jews, and plans to burn 20,000 Talmuds and other books of wisdom (something Gidwitz dwells on, as each book takes several lifetimes to produce.) Jeanne’s parents reject her when they hear about her visions. This leaves the children bewildered and lonely. But they find kindness and support, too: sometimes from the very people who have harmed them. Gidwitz allows all his characters to be complex, to do good things and bad things, and sometimes not to understand their own motivations. The children, too, grow to understand their own powers. Gidwitz addresses a lot of big questions in this book, like how we hear the voice of God if it’s not an actual voice, and why God allows bad things to happen in the world. He doesn’t push his answers, but the questions make this entire book expand.
The evocation of medieval France is bright and eerily accurate, from the way religion touches all aspects of life to the pile of dung outside the peasant village. There’s even an annotated bibliography at the back, which I found incredibly appealing. Most of the things that happen (including the farting dragon) are borrowed from medieval legends — it was quite the time for magical realism! — and those that are made up fit in beautifully. There are even illustrations in the margins, like a medieval manuscript, done with deft humor by Hatem Aly. It was funny and poignant and fascinating, and I didn’t want to leave the children when it was time to put the book down. Do read this — and give it to a child you know!