The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illuminated by Hatem Aly, 2016
Children’s novel for grades 5 and up; historical fiction, adventure
This incredible novel draws from a variety of medieval legends, beliefs, writings, and actual historical figures and events to create a narrative that I would describe as the twenty-first century American child’s version of the Canterbury Tales. Set in France in 1242, the story consists of a series of “tales” told by various characters who have crossed paths at an inn, and who coincidentally all have inside knowledge about a group of children who are either saints or public enemies. The narrator listening to all of these stories learns about the children’s backgrounds (Jeanne is a peasant girl whose village has been accused of heresy because they venerate a dog, William is an uncommonly large and dark-skinned boy training to become a monk, and Jacob is a Jewish boy who has recently lost his home due to an act of arson) and how they all happened to be on the run from their homes when they met each other and decided to stick together. Although they initially have completely different objectives, their goals eventually converge into a mission to rescue Jewish books from burning by order of the king. They fail, and become outlaws in the attempt. At that point, the frame narrative and the children’s story come together as the children arrive at the inn and the narrator accompanies them from that point forward.
The above is such a brief summary that it doesn’t really do the book justice. I’ve skipped over some exciting chase scenes, a very entertaining encounter with a dragon, quite a number of thought-provoking conversations about theology and why life is like cheese, and some relatively important characters. You can take my word for it that this book has all of those things. Although it’s not a particularly difficult middle-grade read, it’s a very intellectual book that I would strongly recommend both for entertainment and for educational purposes. Since I’ve compared it to the Canterbury Tales, I should probably acknowledge that the narrative voices of the tale-tellers aren’t quite as distinct as in Chaucer, but considering that Chaucer’s work is a literary masterpiece that has stood up to five and a half centuries’ worth of academic discussion and analysis, I don’t think it’s a huge drawback for this book to fall just a little short of that standard.
As much as I enjoyed the story, I found it even more fascinating after reading the lengthy author’s note at the end and skimming the annotated bibliography. I could tell that the book was well-researched, and I knew that a few of the characters, such as King Louis and his mother Blanche, were real historical figures, but I didn’t realize just how thoroughly the story was based on medieval sources. I had guessed very quickly that Jeanne was inspired by Joan of Arc, but I didn’t realize that the holy greyhound Gwenforte really existed. (Although the real Gwenforte was a male dog and was actually named Guinefort, which just may possibly be the name of a future pet of mine) I didn’t know the tall tales that inspired William’s character, nor did I realize just how many of the characters were real historical people. I’d never heard of the quicksand surrounding Mont St. Michael and didn’t know that quicksand is so much more dangerous to horses and their riders than to people on foot. Even the comical scene with the farting dragon was an actual medieval story!
For what it’s worth, this book has earned a place on my best-of-2016 list and is currently one of my top two Newbery hopes. I don’t know why it hasn’t received more attention than it has and I hope to see it stand the test of time and become a classic.