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Janet's Literature Reviews
Historical Fiction

On this page I review the following books: CRISPIN: THE CROSS OF LEAD, THE RIFLE, ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY, and MICHELANGELO.

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Crispin: The Cross of Lead 
 
     By Avi

Avi. 2002. CRISPIN: THE CROSS OF LEAD. New York: Hyperion Books for Children. ISBN: 0786826479.

CRISPIN: THE CROSS OF LEAD, a historical fiction novel by Avi, is set in 14th century England under the rule of King Edward III.  This 2003 Newbery Award winning story is about a 13 year old boy named Crispin, or Asta's son as he has always been called, and Bear, a giant of a man that befriends him.  The story begins with the death of his mother, Asta, which leaves him alone in the world.  Asta's son learns from the priest that his real name is Crispin and that his life is in danger.  John Aycliffe, the evil steward of Lord Furnival's manor, has declared Crispin a "wolf's-head" (anyone can kill him and claim a reward) and he must flee from the village that has been his home.  Before Crispin can leave, the priest is killed and Crispin is wrongly accused of murder. Crispin flees from John Aycliffe with the only possession he has, the lead cross that belongs to his mother and is also the secret to his identity.  This begins Crispin's search for his true identity and for true freedom from the evil John Aycliffe and the feudal system that he has lived under for so long.  Along the way, Crispin meets Bear, a traveling juggler, and becomes his servant in exchange for protection.  During their journey to the city, their relationship becomes more than master and servant with both of them risking their lives for the other.  After many adventures Crispin learns his identity as heir to Lord Furnival, but instead of claiming his rightful place in the royal hierarchy, he chooses to do away with the old Crispin and become the new Crispin, completely free.

 

Avi's uses his historical fiction novel to detail the feudal system that was in place during the middle ages in England.  He also explains the role the Church played in the villages and England at this time, "The Holy Church told us where we were in the alterations of the day, the year, and in our daily toil" (p.13).   The author uses flashbacks to describe the terrible conditions of the medieval village that Crispin lived in and was now fleeing.  He describes the hopelessness that the people felt when describing the drudgery of their lives.  Avi writes, "Thus our lives never changed, but went round the rolling years beneath the starry vault of distant Heaven.  Time was the great millstone, which ground us to dust like kerneled wheat.  Birth and death alone gave distinction to our lives, as we made the journey between the darkness from whence we had come to the darkness where we were fated to await Judgment Day" (p. 12-3).  The Plague or Black Death killed many people during this time in history, and Avi describes the destruction that was left when populations of whole villages died or fled from the disease (p. 58-60).

 

The plot of the story moves quickly from one adventure to another and is full of suspense and tension as Crispin stays one step ahead of his enemy, John Aycliffe.  Avi visually shows this by using short chapters that begin at each character or setting change.  Avi also uses precise vocabulary in his story to add interest and reality to the story.  Many of the words are related to the Catholic Church, such as: genuflected (p.29), crucifix (p.28), sanctuary (p.28), abbey (p.83), and acolyte (p.83).  Avi further adds to the reality of his story by using dialogue that is appropriate for the era which frequently includes references to God.  Avi writes, "But swear, in Blessed Jesus' name, not to leave my side, or else your blood will flow like water.  And, as God is good and holy, I promise you, in such a cursed place as this, only the dead shall know" (p. 70).

 

According to a review in Publishers Weekly, "Avi's plot is engineered for maximum thrills, with twists, turns and treachery aplenty, but it's the compellingly drawn relationship between Crispin and Bear that provides the heart of this story.  A page turner to delight Avi's fans, it will leave readers hoping for a sequel."

 

2002. Crispin: The cross of lead (book). PUBLISHERS WEEKLY. Available from http://Amazon.com . Accessed 17 July 04.         

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The Rifle 
 
     By Gary Paulsen

Paulsen, Gary. 1995. THE RIFLE. San Diego: Harcourt Brace. ISBN: 0152928804.

Gary Paulsen's historical novel, THE RIFLE, begins before the Revolutionary War and continues to the 20th century and is about as the title suggests, a rifle.  The story begins when Cornish McManus, a gunsmith, makes the rifle of his lifetime, a beautiful and "sweet" (accurate) flintlock rifle.  McManus reluctantly sells the rifle to John Byam, who immediately recognizes the rifle's value.  The rifle becomes legendary during the Revolutionary War while still under John Byam's ownership because the rifle's accuracy gives John the ability to kill many British officers from a great distance.  John dies of dysentery on the battlefield and the rifle is taken by a woman named Sarah who has the intent of giving the rifle to her sons.  The sons die before Sarah can give them the rifle and in her grief, she puts the rifle in the attic between two timbers and forgets about it.  The rifle is not found for over 200 years, though the house has many owners, until 1993 when the new homeowner's children find it in the attic.  The rifle is finally owned by Harv who receives it in payment for car repairs.  Harv places the rifle over the mantle in his home where the rifle fires on Christmas Eve with tragic results.

 

The book only has four chapters with the first half of the novel being one chapter titled "The Weapon" which traces the ownership of the rifle from before the Revolutionary War to Harv in 1993.  The second chapter is titled "The Boy" and the third chapter is titled "The Joining" where the boy and the rifle are connected in a tragic way.  The fourth chapter "The Rifle", just two pages, tells where the rifle is now.  Paulsen uses simple language and a splattering of short sentences among longer detailed sentences to give readers the sense of a storyteller telling a tale.  This is especially evident in the chapter about the boy.

 

The protagonist in this novel is the rifle though Paulsen skillfully develops the  human characters in the story as well.   Paulsen painstakingly explains how McManus lovingly and skillfully crafts the rifle (p. 8-19) with such detail that the reader is mistakenly lead to believe that Paulsen favors guns.  Paulsen's theme which becomes clear near the end of the story is, "a machine made for killing, no matter how lovingly crafted and benignly kept, remains a machine made for killing" (Lempke) and is contrary to the notion believed by some of the characters in THE RIFLE, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

 

Paulsen introduces the reader to the boy, Richard, and he allows the reader to develop a sense of potential and hope for Richard's future.  A tragic ending is foreshadowed when the reader finds out that Richard lives next door to Harv (p. 78).  There is another incidences of foreshadowing as well as personification when Byam tries to save a man from being hanged.  Paulsen writes, "Byam did not think about what he was doing except to know that somehow he could not let Bainbridge be hanged.  The rifle snapped up, almost by itself; … the sight raised slightly to compensate for distance and the rifle cracked-one clean, smacking slap of sound across the clearing.  The ball took the officer in the throat … The action did not save Bainbridge.  The sound of the rifle startled the horse … and it jumped forward, out from beneath Bainbridge, who pitched at an angle and broke his neck and hung there dying …" (p. 35).  The author uses personification dramatically in the last two sentences of the book to emphasize his point that "guns kill people", when he writes, "And in the meantime the rifle sits in the gun cabinet.  Waiting" (p. 105).   

 

The author touches on weaponry used during the Revolutionary War and some of the causes of the war.  Later in the book when the setting is the 20th century, Paulsen writes briefly about the Branch Davidian incident in Waco as it relates to one of the characters in the story.  This historical fiction novel is light on American history and Paulsen's focus is on the history of this rifle and the devastation guns can cause in our society.

 

Lempke, Susan Dove. The Rifle (book). BOOKLIST. Available from http://Amazon.com . Accessed 17 July 04.

 

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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry 
 
     By Mildred Taylor

Taylor, Mildred D. 1976. ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY. New York: Puffin Books. ISBN: 014034893X.

ROLL OF THUNDER: HEAR MY CRY, by Mildred Taylor is a historical fiction novel set in rural Mississippi in 1933, during the early years of the depression.  This 1977 Newbery Medal winner is about Cassie Logan, a black nine-year-old little girl that learns about the injustice of racism, the importance of family, and the security that comes from owning land. 

 

Cassie's grandfather, a former slave, was able to buy the 400 acres of land that Cassie and her family now live on and farm.  Half of the land is paid for but the family has a mortgage on the other half of the land.  Cassie's parents' main goal is to keep the family intact and to own all 400 acres of land.  Cassie's family is the only black family in the area that owns property and with that ownership comes independence.  The other black families are tenant farmers on land that belongs to a few white land owners.  In the story, Cassie and her brothers have been isolated and protected from the harshness of racism by their loving parents and grandmother.  But times in Mississippi are changing and Cassie and her family are afraid for the first time when the "night riders and burnings" begin.  Mildred Taylor's story tells how this loving close-knit family works to make things better for their black community, and to hold on to their own land.  Cassie has to learn that sometimes you can not fight the racism, but you must just accept the situation with your dignity intact and wait for things to get better.  She also learns from her parents and her grandmother that family and owning the land are the most important things, because they can not be taken away from you.

 

The author gives the reader an accurate feel for the Depression period and the sacrifices people had to make when she writes, "Our flour and sugar … and such are low, but we'll make out – we don't have to have biscuits and cornbread every day.  We're out of pepper and there's not much salt, but we don't just have to have those either" (p.220).  Slavery is also presented when Cassie in a discussion with an adult learns about slaves being used as breeding stock.  Taylor writes, "there was some farms that mated folks like animals to produce more slaves.  Breeding slaves brought a lot of money for them slave owners, 'specially after the government said they couldn't bring no more slaves from Africa, and they produced all kinds of slaves to sell on the block" (p. 149).

 

The plot of the story is believable and realistic to the time period.  An example is during Cassie's first trip to buy supplies in the mercantile.  Cassie has been sheltered by her family from racism and she does not realize that white customers are waited on before she is helped.  The story is skillfully told through Cassie's eyes so the reader feels the anger, humiliation, and indignity that Cassie feels when she first experiences racism in the mercantile.  Taylor writes,  " 'Y-you was helping us,' I said, backing to the front of the counter again. 'Well, you just get your little black self back over there and wait some more,' he said in a low, tight voice. … I had been as nice as I could be to him and here he was talking like this.  'We been waiting on you for near an hour, … while you 'round here waiting on everybody else. And it ain't fair. You got no right--  Whose little nigger is this!' bellowed Mr. Barnett" (p. 111).  The author also effectively uses contrast to show the indignities that Cassie and her brothers must face daily.  The white children attended school in a white wood building with a sports field and benches.  They also had new books and two school buses.  In front of the school flew the Mississippi flag, complete with Confederacy emblem in the upper left-hand corner, above the American flag.  Cassie and her brothers attended school in "weather-beaten wooden houses" where they got books only after they had been used in the white school for 11 years.  The black school was open only five months out of the year so the children could help in the fields.  Contrast is also used to emphasize how differently Cassie is treated within her family where she is loved and how she is treated in the white racist community.

 

I really enjoyed this book and feel it is an accurate example of the racism that blacks lived with during this time.  The author does not sugarcoat the horror of this era and carries the theme of racism through to the end of the story.  I think because of Cassie's age, students will relate to her and find the story more realistic.

 

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Michelangelo 
 
     By Diane Stanley

Stanley, Diane. 2000. MICHELANGELO. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN: 0688150861.

Diane Stanley's, MICHELANGELO, is a complete biography about the great artist known for "creating immortal works in all three of the major arts –sculpture, painting, and architecture."  Mrs. Stanley begins her book with a map of Italy and an "Author’s Notes" page explaining the Renaissance age and art in Italy during this era.

 

Michelangelo was born in 1475 into the family of a court magistrate 50 miles from  the city of Florence.  While still an infant, his parents returned to Florence and he was left with a wet nurse that was also the wife of a local stonecutter.  Michelangelo eventually returned to Florence, but his mother died at the age of six and he returned to live with the stonecutter for a few years.  The influence of the stonecutter was evident when Michelangelo asked his father's permission to quit school so he could become an artist's apprentice.  During these apprenticeships, Michelangelo learned the techniques of fresco painting and sculpting.  Lorenzo de' Medici, a very powerful man in Florence, noticed Michelangelo's talent and he was brought to live with Medici's family where he was introduced to poetry, science, philosophy, and art.  Medici dies and Michelangelo returns to his father's home where he becomes the bread winner for the family. 

 

Michelangelo moved to Rome when the artistic conditions in Florence change and he is commissioned to sculpt a marble Pieta, the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ in her arms.  At the age of 25, Michelangelo becomes famous for his skill as a sculptor and the next year he returns to Florence where he is commissioned to sculpt "David."  His "David" is seventeen feet high and so physically perfect that Michelangelo becomes known as the greatest sculptor in all of Italy.  Michelangelo is then commissioned by the Pope, Julius II to build him a monumental tomb which Michelangelo worked on for the next 40 years, but he was never satisfied with the outcome.  Julius II also commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a task that took him four years to complete.  Michelangelo worked for many of the following popes and the final task of his life was to oversee the building of St Peter's that was begun under the rule of Julius II.  He died at the age of 89 with the opinion that his great works of art were "of little value" but that they "will last for a while."

 

Diane Stanley's text is informative about the Renaissance as well as the political climate in Italy at that time.  Stanley also adds interesting details that give the book a realistic quality such a Michelangelo's rivalry with Leonardo da Vinci and how he painted the Sistine Chapel standing up on scaffolding instead of lying down as is usually depicted.  According to Ilene Cooper, readers will also "be intrigued to learn, for instance, that Michelangelo's art was not shaped by his own creative desires but by the popes and patrons who demanded the tombs, sculptures, and decorations that Michelangelo created."  The author shows that Michelangelo's perfectionism while allowing him to create such magnificent sculptures, also made him difficult to work with and caused him to live his life as a hermit.  Stanley writes about the work in the Sistine Chapel, "It was a very big ceiling – 5,800 square feet – so he hired five assistants from Florence to help him paint it.  But this arrangement didn't last long.  He soon grew impatient with the assistants, who could not possibly live up to his standards, and sent them home."  He also complained to his brother, "I live here in great toil and great weariness of body, and have no friends of any kind and don't want any, and haven't the time to eat what I need." 

 

Diane Stanley alternates text with illustration which makes this book enjoyable to read since the artwork is so striking.  Wendy Lukehart writes, "Integrating Michelangelo's art with Stanley's watercolor, gouache, and colored-pencil figures and settings has the desired effect: readers will be dazzled with the master's ability, while at the same time pulled into his daily life and struggles.  Stanley has manipulated his art on the computer, particularly the sculpture, to tone down the marble's gloss and definition.  As a result, the images are more convincing as works in progress.  Her careful use of scale and color contribute to the success of the scenes."  I found the most powerful illustration in the biography to be of the Sistine Chapel where after reading in the text that Michelangelo changed his approach to the fresco, I was able to look at the artwork in the book and see the change.  I loved Stanley's insight, "To study the Sistine ceiling is to watch a genius learning how to paint."

 

Cooper, Ilene. Michelangelo (book). BOOKLIST. Available from http://Amazon.com . Accessed 17 July 04.

 

Lukehart, Wendy. 2000. Michelangelo (book). SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL. Available from http://Amazon.com . Accessed 17 July 04. 

 
 


These reviews were prepared in fulfillment of requirements for "Literature for Children and Young Adults", LS5603, Texas Woman's University, Summer 2004.