The book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Illus. by Ian Schoenherr. Chicken House, 2018. ISBN: 9781911490579.
(Age: 9-14) Highly recommended. Themes: Middle Ages, Plague, Relics, Religion, Disability. Newbery Honor book 2019. It is the year 1350 and Secundus is a pilgrim who is on a quest to collect six relics, 'rib tooth thumb shin dust skull tomb', to put in the tomb of St Peter in Rome. When he meets Boy, a goatherd, he takes him away from the manor where he lives to help him to find the relics. Boy goes along hoping for a miracle at St Peter's tomb, making him a normal boy and taking away the hump on his back. There are mysteries for the reader to solve: Why does Boy give all his food to the animals that he can communicate with? And what is the strange smell that surrounds the key that Secundus uses to open all manner of locks?
Murdock brings her medieval world vividly to life for the reader who is taken through the empty villages and devastated countryside of France, each leaving a picture of the plague killing everyone and farms and houses being deserted. The religious beliefs that underlie every aspect of the period are also described in a matter of fact way as each relic is gathered, with both Secundus and Boy fervently believing that a miracle will happen when the relics are put in St Peter's tomb.
There is humour and pathos in Murdock's writing and it is easy to become lost in her world as Secundus and Boy take on often dangerous challenges in obtaining the relics. Her characters feel like real people with believable fears and dreams, and Boy's generosity and goodness is a delight to read. The woodcut-like illustrations at the headings of each chapter, particularly of the animals that Boy converses with, also add to the charm of the book.
This gives an excellent insight into the effects of the Black Plague and the place of religion in society in the Middle Ages and would be very useful for classroom discussion of Medieval times. However it is the uplifting thought of Boy's spirit that will remain with the reader.