Janie: The Book of Boy is one of the more unusual middle-grade novels to appear this year. The main character is (not surprisingly) Boy, a foundling raised by the village priest, who never bothered to give him a name. Now that the Black Death has carried away his guardian, Boy is a goatherd at the Manor, living off the kindness, or lack of it, of the staff. But then a stranger on a pilgrimage employs him to carry his pack on a journey that’s supposed to last no more than six days. As you might guess, the journey will last more than six days and come with its share of danger and mystery. But the biggest mystery turns out to be Boy himself.
There’s nothing unusual about medieval-themed fantasy, but this story purports to take place in an actual place (central France) and specific year (1350). The fantasy element comes from the deep well of Medieval mythology, with its saints and relics, angels, demons, and cursed pilgrims. I’m pretty resistant to all that, as I suspect most Protestants are, but I actually found the story very moving. Also, it was kinda refreshing to see Christian, or at least quasi-Christian faith, taken seriously. Other readers I talked to about this book were put off by what we might call Catholic superstitions. What were your thoughts about that?
Megan: I certainly noticed that there were far more references to Saint Peter than to God, and that somehow unscrupulous accumulation of relics was justified by whoever has them in the end. I’m very thankful that my salvation does not depend on pilgrimages, but on grace! Since it was fantasy the superstition didn’t bother me, and I really enjoyed the book. I am struck by how dark the Dark Ages were. If you have no access to the Truth, all you can do is grasp for fragments that become idols! The twist in the middle surprised me—I was expecting something different.
Janie: We can’t give that away! I agree about the relatively few mentions of God, but as you suggest, that’s a result of the spiritual darkness of the time. The Reformation and printing press were still a couple of centuries away and the common people, almost all of them illiterate, had no way of reaching God except through intermediaries. Even many—perhaps most—of the village priests were illiterate, and depended on what they were taught or told to say. If saints were mediators, no wonder the people looked to them first. And if relics were being traded like magical charms, corruption would be inevitable. That’s one thing I liked about the book—in spite of the fantasy elements, it felt true to the times.
Megan: One of my favorite things about the book was the characterization of the animals through their conversations with Boy. Did you have any favorites?
Janie: No particular favorites, but thanks for mentioning that; I had forgotten. I enjoyed the encounter with the dogs because it comes at a pivotal point in the story and involves a change of heart in the dogs themselves. Their “dogginess” seemed just right–it reminded me of Narnia #7, The Last Battle, when the dogs come to the aid of our heroes, even though they are vastly outnumbered and don’t have a chance of winning. The other animals Boy communicates with all have their peculiar characteristics as well.
That leads to the other aspect of this story that impressed me: the human characters. I didn’t get the sense that any of them were stereotyped, but the pilgrim, Secundus, really stands out. In a sense, he’s actually the protagonist in a kind of pre-Reformation Pilgrim’s Progress. He hires the Boy to carry his burden, but can’t escape the greater inward burden he carries. But I see God’s grace breaking through anyway, even in this world if ignorance and superstition. Does the story say anything about grace to you, Megan?
Megan: Definitely. Any kind of longing for redemption can only come from grace, and any kind of help is a form of grace. Even while the pilgrim collects the relics through his own achievements, he can’t do it without Boy’s help. And there is one relic that is provided unexpectedly, showing that Secundus really can’t complete his list on his own. In other quest stories the older mentor is the helper; in this one, it is Boy who aids the older pilgrim every step of the way. How much we need help in our spiritual journey! This book reminded me of another medieval Newbery winner from about a decade ago, Crispin, the Cross of Lead. It’s another story of a pilgrimage and seeking identity that takes place about thirteen years in England. Interesting read-alike.
Janie: I read Crispin a long time ago and can’t remember much about it, so the comparison would have slipped my mind. Thanks for mentioning it! And thanks for your thoughts—I can’t wait to see how The Book of Boy fares in the ALA sweepstakes, especially since it doesn’t seem to push any current political hot buttons.
Coming up next: Janie, Betsy and Haley discuss Sweep by Jonathan Auxier.