I recently received a review copy of the second book in Avi's Crispin series (Crispin: At the Edge of the World). Since I'm compulsive about reading series books in order, I had to go out and get a copy of the first book in the trilogy, Crispin: The Cross of Lead. I was vaguely familiar with this first book because it won the Newbery Medal in 2003, but I had never read it.
Crispin: The Cross of Lead is a historical novel set in 1377, during a time of great crisis in England. At the start of the story, the hero doesn't even know his own name. He's been raised in isolation in a small village, and has only ever heard himself referred to as "Asta's son". Even among the villagers, Asta's son has been isolated, never treated like one who belonged there. His own mother often seems to resent him. He thinks of himself as being "nothing".
Upon Asta's death, however, the boy learns from his only remaining ally, Father Quinel, that he was baptized with the name of Crispin. Father Quinel also tells him that his mother knew how to read and write (unheard of for a peasant woman), and that there is a secret about Crispin's father (who he always believed had died of the plague). The priest gives Crispin his mother's lead cross, though he doesn't have a chance to tell Crispin what is written on the back, or to share with him the secret about Crispin's father.
Instead, the cruel steward of the local manor, John Aycliffe, accuses Crispin of crimes that he didn't commit, and puts a bounty on the boy's head. Crispin must run away, leaving the only home he's ever known. He has no food or money, and because he's never left his village, or been educated, he knows nothing about geography, and almost nothing about the ways of the world.
Crispin soon falls in with a stranger named Bear, a huge red-bearded former priest who now makes a living as a traveling entertainer. Bear has secrets, too. Gradually, however, the boy and the man come to trust one another, and Bear teaches Crispin things about the world. Together, they have a series of near-misses and dramatic adventures, before Crispin learns the truth about who he really is.
I love the complex character of Bear, with his positive attributes and his failings, and his personal demons. In all honesty, I found Crispin rather annoying at first. He has been told for his whole life that he is worthless, and he has naturally come to believe this. He has little ability to stick up for himself, let alone for anyone else, and seems to spend most of his time praying and feeling sorry for himself. As the book progresses, however, Bear is an excellent influence on Crispin. As the boy starts to learn more, and to feel like he's contributing towards making his own living, he begins to blossom. He demonstrates unexpected reserves of bravery and loyalty by the end of the story. Leaving me quite ready to read about his next adventure.
Crispin: The Cross of Lead is an interesting and highly accessible window into a tumultuous historical period. It's truly astounding, read from today's perspective, to see how little power the peasants had, and how small their world was. I found the characters' constant references to the will of God in everyday conversation difficult to get used to, but I suspect that this is probably historically accurate for the time period. I'll be interested to see how or if Crispin's religious views evolve over the course of the trilogy.
The edition that I read contains a historical summary of the time period at the end of the book, as well as a glossary of terms, and an interview with Avi, all of which shed additional light for the reader. I can definitely see why this book one the Newbery Medal.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.