The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, illustrated by Ian Schoenherr, 278 pp, RL 4
The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock,
illustrated by Ian Schoenherr
The Book of Boy is the best book I read published this year, and possibly the best book I read all year. I have an affinity for books set in the middle ages, but the voice of the narrator and the path of this story are sure to entrance you. As will the spot illustrations that start each chapter. I was completely enticed by the promise of each upcoming, crisp black and white illustration by Schoenherr, and loved wondering how it would play out in the coming chapter. There is a climactic twist in The Book of Boy, along with a few other small surprises that I will not reveal here, although you can find other reviews that do.
Set in 1350 in France, Boy works as a goatherd at the manor of Sir Jacques, a formerly successful knight of the realm who has been left a drooling mess after being injured while jousting. His wife and three small children have been lost to the Plague, which is still fresh in everyone's memories. An orphan with a hunchback, Boy is used to being called a monster. However, he has a way with animals and a gift for climbing, which gets him caught up in the affairs of a pilgrim named Secundus.
Secundus recruits Boy under false pretenses as he makes his way across the country stealing holy relics. Secundus is collecting items (rib, tooth, thumb, toe, dust, skull, tomb) that he hopes will deliver him to St. Peter and the gates of Heaven. Having been a lawyer, he can read and he carries a book with him that he refers to often. However, he cannot carry the pack with the relics he has already stolen inside as they burn his skin...
Boy is so taken with the world beyond his manor, and the fact that the pack on his back hides his hump and keeps him from being noticed, ridiculed and worse. Boy rationalizes staying with Secundus and helping him on his quest because, while he is stealing, he is doing so to get into Heaven. As they make their way across France lying and stealing, headed toward Rome, Boy also justifies his actions by telling himself he will ask St. Peter to make him a real boy and not a monster. Boy remembers his past and his time before he moved to the manor, and his travels force him to learn some things about himself that he had always kept hidden. As the story unfolded and I learned more about Boy and Secundus, I found myself not even caring about the pilgrimage and what would actually happen if they collected all items needed.
Murdock's story walks a fuzzy line between historical fiction and fantasy. The religious beliefs of the middle ages, the papal schism of Catholic church that left a pope in Rome and another in Avignon (seriously, the only think I remember from my AP European history class...) and the many, many things that science had not yet uncovered make talk of miracles and veils of tears that are part of this story seem par for the course. While the presence of evil in The Book of Boy is not easily answered, the unfailing goodness of Boy and his commitment to life - be it human or animal - and finding joy in his work rings true. Whatever you make of this book by the end, wether it leaves you scratching your head or hugging it to your chest and sighing, I guarantee you will find joy in the work of reading The Book of Boy.
A few more great books set in the Middle Ages: