Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2018 278 pages
Known only as "Boy", our poor hero suffers with a hunchback at the mercy of the abusive and crabby cook, who is now married to his infirmed master in medieval France. A pilgrim finds him in a tree and invites him along on his journey to help carry the pack. Boy agrees and with Secundus, his new master, he journeys through France and Italy collecting relics. Why is Secundus intent on collecting the relics of Saint Peter? And what is Boy's secret of which he intends to fix upon arrival in Rome. A true quest, our heroes travel from village to city and across the sea pilfering religious relics/former body parts of Saint Peter along the way. The travelers encounter many dangers such as wolves, entrapment, angry monks, violent villagers, and dishonest crooks. As the quest continues, Boy finds relief from the pack he carries and his hunchback becomes less pronounced. Why doesn't Boy eat and how come he can talk to animals? The secrets and motivations behind the true identities of both Secundus and Boy are revealed by book's end as the small team reaches the holy city of Rome and the climatic end of the journey.
Even though I am a fan of Murdock's other work and this book had great reviews, I did not read it last year because I thought it looked boring. After winning a Newbery honor I felt obligated to crack it open and was glad that I did! The Book of Boy is my kind of book. It is a tightly written classic quest-tale filled with adventure and surprises. Having traveled to Italy just this past year, I saw my share of religious relics and enjoyed the medieval focus on these interesting and important, yet morbid, items. Murdock does not reveal to the reader the true identity of the main characters and instead slowly gives the readers clues to whom they are. Boy's true identity is super cool and readers will probably figure it out based on clues before it is officially stated. The pen and ink illustrations by Ian Schoenherr help to place the story in its historical context and add to the overall atmosphere. A medieval map is at the end of the volume instead of the traditional beginning, yet I still spent a good deal of time pouring over it. Murdock had me at the introductory quote, "The Key to Hell Picks All Locks", and I enjoyed every bit of this story. That said, I think the potential audience is a very narrow cross-section of folks. I do not think many young readers will "get" this story nor give it a chance. There have been a few kids I have met over the years who would fall right into it, but they are few and far between. The Book of Boy is a great recommendation for lovers of medieval history or wizened librarians, but perhaps not for today's young insta-generation.