I first read Crispin back in 2011. Upon finding the sequel recently, I decided it was time to re-read the original.
He had never been called by his own name. the villagers called him “Asta’s son”, and that’s all he was, really. His mother’s son. He knew nothing of his father, except that he had been dead for many years. Crispin had never met him and had no token of him. He had not even the assurance that his father had loved him, and certainly no one else did. The villagers shunned him, and even his mother only showed love to him in fits of emotion which were just as often balanced by periods of bitterness. But against whom was this bitterness? Her son or his father?
When Asta dies, her son’s only plan is to continue living in their home until he is forced to leave. But all in one day his home is burned and he is declared a wolf’s head, an outlaw, for a crime he did not commit. He must flee to one of the larger cities and pray that the crowds will offer him protection.
But why has he been accused of this crime? Has it anything to do with his unknown father? And will he ever gain his freedom?
When we meet Crispin, he is a servile boy who knows nothing of happiness or joy. Refused even a name for himself, he is an outcast, disliked by his neighbors and only half-loved by his mother. When she dies he is truly alone. He has no friends save one, Father Quinel, who helps Crispin to bury his mother and later helps Crispin to escape from Aycliffe, who declared Crispin a wolf’s head. It is Father Quinel who tells “Asta’s son” his real name – Crispin.
Crispin, who has never been taught to think or act as a free man, flounders in his first attempts to direct his own steps. His only practical skills are in the way of sowing crops, which are of no service to his new nomadic lifestyle. Also, what scraps of religion he has gathered have taught him to think fatalistically of the world – if it is God’s will that he must die, there is nothing to be done to change that course, and it is probably for the best, anyway. He has zero sense of personhood or of ability. It is likely that he would have died a thousand times over had he not meat Bear.
Bear is a huge man – by trade a jongleur, by natural talent a humorist, and by training a philosopher. When we meet him, our immediate impression is that he is cruel and tyrannical. After capturing Crispin, he forces Crispin to take a solemn oath to serve him as master, wishing divine vengeance upon himself if he ever forsakes his oath. Crispin quakingly swears allegiance and both he and we believe that he has fallen into as evil a fate as the one he escaped. But we are wrong. For although Bear continues to make fierce threats to Crispin, Crispin soon learns that these are bluffs which conceal a kindly heart.
As Bear becomes aware of Crispin’s complete lack of self worth or respect, he begins to train Crispin, first to perform tasks which will earn him money, and later skills that will help him to survive. As the trust grows between them, Bear installs Crispin as an apprentice rather than a servant. Eventually they become as father and son. Bear teaches Crispin the importance of freedom and self sufficiency, and helps him assume not only the attitude of a freeman, but also the mien. Their bond grows until Crispin, who discovers the identity of his father, willingly renounces all claim to his father’s name to save Bear’s life.
This is the book which made me fall in love with Avi’s writing (Perloo the Bold, Ereth’s Birthday, Windcatcher, Man from the Sky, , Poppy, Night Journeys, The Barn, Captain Grey, The Traitor’s Gate, The City of Orphans etc.). His ability to imitate the writing style from centuries past (apparent also in The Traitor’s Gate, City of Orphans and Captain Grey) is spectacular. In this case, we quickly feel emerged in the late 1300s, surrounded as we are by quaint phrasing, superstitious religion, and political tension.
The religious setting is entirely Catholic, as it should be, and Crispin often piously prays though he knows himself to be sinful and has never been taught a way of redemption. He and Bear seek out priests’ blessings as they enter into new cities and even attend mass – Crispin out of a hopeful fear, and Bear so that they will be more readily accepted and rewarded by the villagers!
One thing parents will want to keep in mind is that the speech of the time was littered with oaths (and were in fact used to assure piety!). “God’s wounds”, “the sacred name of Christ”, and many similar variations are invoked casually in conversation. Also, Saints are mentioned and icons described.
The only real caution I have occurs in Chapter 14, when Crispin comes upon the rotting body of a hanged man. He describes his physical appearance, which is grotesque, and the fear he felt upon seeing it. A few pages over, in Chapter 15, Crispin also sees a skeleton, which he briefly describes. There is no other violence.
Crispin is twice referred to by the stronger word for illegitimate.
Conclusion. A very good story for older students – Crispin’s quest for identity will capture his readers!
Review © 2014 Laura Verret