Inquisitor’s Tale reminds us of Chaucer

Here’s a new book that can be read with enjoyment by almost anyone approaching teenage or above — and almost everyone, depending on age, will get something different from it. Its format and historic setting mimic Geoffrey Chaucer’s great Canterbury Tales, where everyone sitting in the same inn tells a different, fascinating story.
Adam Gidwitz adapts many of those literary conceits for The Inquisitor’s Tale, subtitled The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog. This last, all by itself, should be enough to get you interested.
But here’s a problem: It has won just about every prize awarded for children’s books since it appeared in 2016, which can be a turnoff for adults — who will actually get much more out of this reading than any youngster. I assure you, the twists and turns of Gidwitz’ compelling story, with Hatem Aly’s marginal illustrations in the style of pre-printing press manuscripts, will both fascinate and challenge.
There is no way I can compress the plot for you without destroying the joy you’ll have in following it yourself. But I can describe — briefly — the principal characters. There is a tall, rather dark-skinned boy, William, who has been a monk-in-training and brings his amazing physical strength to the story. There is a young Jewish boy, Jacob, a healer who knows about pogroms and such, but also much of our people’s heritage and wisdom (not a surprise: I’m sure Gidwitz knows his Jewish history and has himself studied up on Torah and Talmud). And there is a girl, Jeanne, who, with her greyhound Gwenforte, can do things that sometimes verge on the supernatural — and sometimes really are. How this trio comes to be a powerful unit starts off the story.
But only a start, for the big tale — in the style and spirit of Chaucer — is made up of many little tales, told as a variety of travelers while away their evenings in a French inn, with strong drink flowing into their tankards to encourage talk about their experiences, and the memories that bear upon — and ultimately reveal — the whole story. The year set for these tellings is 1242.
I should be more specific and tell you that the children’s literature prizes showered upon this book tend to specify it for a middle-grades readership. But I think that even those youngsters may have a hard time handling some of the harrowing experiences these three children go through, throughout The Inquisitor’s Tale. If you know about the Middle Ages and the Crusades, I don’t have to tell you that most of the strange, heroic trio’s adventures involve deaths, some of those most beloved to them, and sustained threats to their own lives.
The happy ending comes because of how these children pool their exceptional abilities to help each other survive all those threats. This brings with it some surprises — none of them baldly telegraphed in the writing so that they do remain to surprise at the end — and the assurance that normal lives (at least what would be most normal for each of them in their time and place) await them after the book’s last page has been turned.
And there are 350 of them. In addition, there is an extensive listing of annotated sources that writer Gidwitz used in the six years it took him to assemble all these varied takes on medieval tales into one complete book. The adjectives awarded it by a stellar number of review sources attest to his success: The New York Times calls his achievement “staggering”…to the Wall Street Journal, it is “sparkling”…Booklist’s words are “a taut, inspired adventure.” But Kirkus tops them all: “Gidwitz strikes literary gold with this masterpiece of storytelling…”
Postscript: Mont-Saint-Michel is the final setting for this book. It was also of great importance in World War II. For a truly Jewish tale in which this same site figures importantly, read Irwin Shaw’s compelling and haunting story, Act of Faith.

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