Book Review 3 – Crispin: The Cross of Lead
A pauper named Crispin has to run for his life after his mother dies in his little town of Stomford Village, during the Great Plague in England, year 1363. Pursued by a relentless steward named Aycliffe and his men, Crispin encounters a man named Bear in an abandoned plague town and his captured and made Bear’s sworn man. Bear gets Crispin out of trouble and thinking for himself, something that at the age of 13 he has never truly done. Bear takes Crispin to Great Wexly, where he is meeting with people who wish to overthrow the monarchy, and while there, the funeral of Lord Furnival is taking place. It is Lord Furnival who is revealed to be Crispin’s real father, and the reason that Crispin is being pursued. Furnival has no heir, and his widow wants all of his bastard children to be killed. In a dramatic ending, Crispin saves Bear’s life and the two of them escape Great Wexley alive and their pursuer, Aycliffe, an oathbreaker, dead.
Avi (2002). Crispin: The Cross of Lead. New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children.
Of all the Newbery Books and other award winners that I read for this module, this was the best book of the bunch. The two main characters, Crispin and Bear, were complex and detailed and very likable. Crispin is the coming of age child who doesn’t even know how to think for himself at the beginning but has a good sense for danger, and by the end he is willing to take risks and shows devotion to a friend. Bear is an complex character that the author does a good job sowing doubt in a young reader’s mind as to whether he is normal or full of madness. However, he is shown by the end as someone who loves Crispin as a son and wants him to be strong and to think for himself. An adult reading this can see this early on, but Avi does well here with tailoring the clues towards kids who may start to suspect that deep down Bear is a good man.
The setting of the story is just beautifully done. The small village of Stromford is so small that everyone knows one another and the remoteness of Crispin’s life is apparent. As he has to flee to the countryside the desolation of England during the plague years seems to have no end. People have fled or died and entire villages stand empty. Crispin is full of mud and muck and the life of a medieval peasant is not a pleasant one. Contrasted with the countryside is the crammed and bustling town of Great Wexly, full of human waste running down the streets and sour smells of ale and wine. Its narrow and twisting alleyways cause Crispin to lose himself while wandering the town, and Avi does an excellent job of describing what life must have been like the city dweller in England during this time.
Avi built the tension of the book steadily with little reprieve. Very few times did Crispin get a break during his flight from his home, and the tension made this book a definite page turner. I finished the book in just a few hours despite the 262 page length. The plot, while run through with nearly non-stop action, wove a story about Crispin and who he was throughout, without revealing the truth until the end. As an adult reading this book, it was easy to make predictions, and kids that are good readers and critical thinkers could mark the signs throughout as well.
Overall a fantastic book and an excellent Newbery Award winner. I am going to read the rest of the trilogy and recommend this book to any kid looking for historical fiction – a sign of a good book.
Falsely accused of theft and declared a “wolf’s head” (whom any man may kill) after his mother’s death, humble, pious Crispin flees the feudal village where he was raised and the steward who wants him dead. Taken in as an apprentice by a massive, red-haired, itinerant juggler who calls himself Bear, Crispin learns about music and mummery, about freedom and questioning fate, and about his own mysterious parentage that seems to be the reason behind the steward’s continuing pursuit of him. Avi writes a fast-paced, action-packed adventure comfortably submerged in the 14th century setting giving Crispin a realistic medieval worldview even while suberting it with Bear’s revolutionary arguments. Once master and apprentice arrive in Great Wexly for the Midsummer’s Day festivities and some seditious intrigue on Bear’s part, Avi slows down and offers both the reader and Crispin a chance to look around, but things speed up again with the reappearance of the steards and pursuit through the streets of the medieval city The cause for the steward’s enmity is finally revealed-Crispin is the illegitimate son of the local lord, who recently died without an heir-but the expected ending gets a surprise twist when Crispin trades this birthright for Bear’s safety.
Burkam, A. L. (2002). Crispin. Horn Book Magazine 78(5), p. 566.
One of the things that I love talking to young writers and readers about is getting a good hook at the beginning of the book. It was something highlighted by Lucy Calkins when I met her in Milwaukee. This book has a very strong hook in the beginning. Crispin is a poor boy who is burying his mother in the very beginning of the book and running from the authorities nearly immediately after that. As a librarian, using this book as an example, it would be easy to read just the beginning of the book to show young students what a strong beginning looks and sounds and feels like, engrossing the reader and getting their attention so they want more of the story. This could be done with a regular education teacher for a writing class, during an introduction to historical fiction to expose kids to different genres, or when discussing award winning books and what are some of the good qualities of those books that people look for when selecting books to win awards.