Crispin and the Cross of Lead by Avi, 262 pp, RL 4

Crispin: The Cross of Lead is the Newbery award winning book from the prolific (and multi-award winning) author Avi. I can't think of an author who has contributed more - much needed - historical fiction (compelling, exciting and suspenseful, at that) to the shelves of the kid's section. I have read a handful of his books (including City of Orphans) well before I started a pointed course of reading for this blog. Avi's book Iron Thunder : The Battle Between the Monitor and the Merimac is also one of the few works of fiction I was able to get my (older) non-fiction loving son to read. Slowly but surely, I am working my way through reading and rereading his books for review here because each one is as good as the next and equally evocative of the time and place, wether it is England in the middle ages, California during the Gold Rush, an ocean voyage in 1802 or Brooklyn in 1943. And then there are his works of fantasy and his Poppy Series set in a forest with animals as the main characters and the perennial best seller, The Good Dog.

Crispin: The Cross of Lead begins in 1377, the day after the death of the narrator's mother. Asta was a serf, like every other inhabitant of the village of Stormford, but she was also an outcast. Scorned by the villagers and worked especially hard by John Aycliffe, the steward of the manor owned by Lord Furnival who has been off fighting in the wars, Asta and her son lived a life that was brutal and bleak. Avi does a phenomenal job illustrating this inhuman condition in the character of Asta's son, the only name the narrator has ever been called. Distraught over the loss of his mother, Asta's son runs into the woods and spends the night there after her funeral. Awakening late in the night, he sees a light ahead and hears the voices of John Aycliffe and another man. While he remembers their whole exchange, he has no idea what they are talking about. Asta's son is spotted by Aycliffe, who tries to kill him on the spot. When he misses, he declares the boy a "wolf's head," meaning that he is not considered human and that anyone can kill him on the spot. With the help of the priest, Father Quinel, Asta's son learns that his given name is Crispin and that his mother could read and write, something only the nobles and clergy were educated in at the time. Before he can reveal more to Crispin about himself he is killed and Crispin is on the run.

In a village that has been devastated by the Great Mortality (the Plague) years back, Crispin comes upon the hulking, red bearded Bear. A traveling juggler, this man's personality, beliefs and ideas are as divided as the jester's hat he wears. Bear questions Crispin who, because of the circumscribed life he led can tell him almost nothing, and draws from him the fact that he has been declared a wolf's head for stealing money from the manor house and demands that Crispin swear to be his servant. Yet, Bear surprises Crispin with a long line of thoughtful, even philosophical questions about himself, servitude and life. Soon, Bear is teaching Crispin to juggle and play the flute and the two are earning money as they travel from town to town and treating him with kindness and even love. However, Aycliffe has much darker, deeper reasons for wanting Crispin dead and as Bear realizes this and begins to piece together things about Crispin's life that even he doesn't know, a bond forms between the man and the boy. When the two reach Great Wexley they find shelter at the Green Man Inn and protection from its owner, the Widow Daventry. This is needed more than ever as all soldiers are on the lookout for Crispin while Bear is in town for clandestine meetings with a group of men seeking the end of serfdom, the end of enslavement with freedom and equality for all, the abolishment of manorial rights and unfair taxes and laws made by "the consent of  a general commons of all true and righteous men" instead of by petty tyrants. While Crispin may be a wolf's head, Bear's involvement with freedom seekers is treasonous and equally, instantly punishable.

A relatively short book with short chapters (58 in a 262 page book!) the pace of Crispin: The Cross of Lead is quick and the action quicker. Avi balances this nicely with scenes of dialogue between Crispin and Bear. Crispin's evolution from a deeply religious serf who believes that a life of servitude is God's wish for him to a boy who gains a name and an identity, seeing his reflection for the first time in his life at the age of thirteen, is swift but powerful. In addition to learning to think of himself as an individual, he also learns to see the world around him and by the end of the book is as valuable a friend and protector to Bear as Bear is to him. The cross of lead of the title, the only item that Asta owned and passed on to her son, proves to be both a damning and ultimately liberating part of Crispin's life and he uses it well. Besides being a fascinating glimpse into life in this dark time of human existence, Avi has written a book that is also a powerful story of connection, awakening and purpose. Crispin's story continues in Crispin : At the Edge of the World and Crispin : The End of Time. I have no doubt that, after Crispin: The Cross of Lead, readers will want to know more about these amazing characters and this time that led up to the richly creative era of the Renaissance.

Source: Purchased and listened to as an audiobook.

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