It should not be surprising that The Inquisitor's Tale is about the Dark Ages, when the Inquisition rooted out and punished anything that the Pope determined was heresy. It is also not surprising that Gidwitz would employ a style of storytelling reminiscent of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Each chapter is a tale told by one or other patron of a local inn in rural France.
What is surprising is that Gidwitz, with six years of research under his belt, does not try to write a history book for children. Instead, he paints a deeply informed picture of the Dark Ages that is also interesting and accessible. He taps in to the corner of the imagination that transcends time and allows someone in the modern information age to truly understand a few of the difficulties and delights of a life 800 years ago. You can trust the background details to be true and accurate of the time period. Yes, the Kings and Queens had a corner of the banquet hall designated for their bladder relief during mealtimes. Yes, peasants slept with their cow at night for warmth. Yes, people from all stations of life gathered at inns to drink ale, warm themselves by a fire, and swap stories till past their bedtime. (Some things never change!)
The thing I loved most about this book is that I knew I was learning so much about the Dark Ages without even trying. I didn't have to memorize dates or names, but I now know who the king of France was during that time period (and his mother and wife too!) After reading this book, I have a much better sense of what life was like back then. We've gained almost everything. (It was the Dark Ages, after all.) But we've lost things too. Who knows herb lore and which plants can have which effect on the body? (I know some do, but not many!) Who has seen or used a handmade, illuminated book? Who has seen a book that took 40 years to make and was a work of art worthy of sitting next to the Mona Lisa?
The three children of this story could not have been more unlikely friends. William is a giant of an oblate (basically a monk's understudy) who loved books and learning. Jacob is a Jew which was almost equal to the Devil in that culture. And Jeanne is a peasant girl who has fits in which she sees visions that often show her something of the future. Even so, they are thrown together and they do miracles. ("Really?", you say. Well, it all depends on your perspective, just as it did in the Dark Ages. Maybe they were just normal people. Maybe they were heathen witches. Maybe they were saints doing the work of the Almighty.)
Gidwitz cleverly weaves together truth and tale and produces a legend. A wonderful beautiful legend, illustrating perfectly the Biblical principle: God uses the weak things of the earth to shame the strong; He uses the humble things of the earth to shame the proud. Through the story, he weaves in elements of more Biblical principles: Forgive, love, and care for your enemies. Trust that God sees more than you see, and that there is a reason and maybe even beauty in the pain we experience on earth. (The Troubadour's Tale got it right when he said that God was singing the song of the world. The pain of life and loss of loved ones is never beautiful, but the song that is telling the story might still be....will we trust that it is?) Truly, these are the hard questions of life--not just life in the Dark Ages. They are questions of life now, where terrorists murder, and political battles are full of hatred and blindness, and people are afraid of showing too much of themselves to others.
William, Jeanne, and Jacob experienced these things in their world. People murdered without reason. (Jacob's parents died this way.) Political battles were blinded by hatred. (William saw the horror of thousands of books being burned and knowledge lost just because the Christians hated the Jews.) And Jeanne. She was afraid of her shadow--the shadow of her fits and dreams and of the people that would burn her as a witch because of what they did not understand. At any rate, these unlikely friends protect each other and comfort each other through loss and loneliness. And together, they make the hardest choice of all: to do what they believe is right no matter the consequences. This is still a decision children (and adults too) have to make. But back then no one had any "human rights". There was no "social justice." There was no "due process" of law and order. In the culture of the Dark Ages, "Might made right"...with a bit of superstition thrown in. So the rule of the land was more like: "Might makes right and saves your soul from eternal fire and torture where bloodthirsty demons will shred the flesh off your living bones."
There's something admirable and stunning about someone following truth when "Might" is on the side of the lie. The way these children do. The way we could. Admirable. Or crazy. Either way, it makes a good story.