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justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2013-03-25 10:14 am

Review: The Trumpeter of Krakow (Eric P. Kelly)

Summary: A Polish/Ukrainian family flee their farm home, pursued by an evil Tartar spy who wants to steal the treasure they safeguard, the Great Tarnov Crystal; they go to Krakow, hoping to give the Crystal to the Polish king for safekeeping. Aided by historical figure Jan Kanty, they find living quarters and the father is employed as hourly trumpeter at a church while they wait for the King to return from the borders. Plotty stuff ensues, in which the crystal - a large gazing ball - is stolen by a neighboring alchemist. Eventually the alchemist's attempts to make gold from instructions he "sees" in the crystal cause an explosion that sets half of Krakow on fire. The Tartar spy, the father and son, Jan Kanty, and the now-insane alchemist all go before the King (who has just returned) with the Great Tarnov Crystal, and all things plotty are explained. Finally, the alchemist snatches the crystal from the King's hands and throws it into the deep river that partially moats the castle, whence it cannot be recovered.

Reaction: I remembered this as being a really good book, as pre-Civil-Rights historical fiction for kids goes. The atmospheric descriptions of medieval Krakow still hold up, but the rest is sadly less awesome than I remembered. Of the two female characters (the trumpeters' wife/mother and the alchemist's niece), only one, the niece Elzbietka - who is also the boy-trumpeter's love interest - has a name. Heroic characters are invariably good-looking and upper-class Polish while the baddies are all creepy-looking, two are disfigured (the evil Tartar and a mentally disabled hunchback who is doorman at the main family's lodging-house), and all but one - the hunchbacked man - are of non-Polish extraction.

Historical realism takes a far back seat to telling the story the writer wants to tell; the climactic fire really took place, but the "historical" incident that's told as true in the Prologue (a sweet little tale about a former church trumpeter who bravely died at his post in an invasion of Krakow) did not. Jan Kanty, historically not just a dedicated scientist but also a devoted priest and Bible scholar who was later made a Catholic saint, is portrayed in the classic early-20th-century mold of Smart Science Guy Who Bravely Combats The Poor Dumb Peasants' Superstitiousness, while Stas the hunchback's plaints about "devils" are used to let the author dismiss his perfectly sensible unease about the alchemist's fireworks-inna-wooden-loft experiments.

And - what I didn't realize till reading this review on The Newbery Project - the family's clever plan to bring the Tarnov Crystal to Krakow concealed in a pumpkin is anachronistic! O_O The book takes place in 1462; pumpkins are American, and even if they grew in the Caribbean, could not have been discovered till a minimum of thirty years later! :P *facepalm* Which makes me wonder about all the rest of the good-sounding research in this book.

Conclusion: Two stars. It has a clever plot with plenty of foreshadowing and twist reveals, hard to summarize in a sentence or two, and one of the female characters gets to save the lives of the two titular male heroes at one point. (Admittedly, by running to fetch male deus-ex-machina character Jan Kanty, who in turn summons the male Watch; it doesn't speak well to the general quality of adventure-stories that even this amount of agency for a young lady strikes me as very rare in adventure stories with a male main.) But its historicity runs to the dubious, and the levels of racism, classism, and especially ableism are really terrible.