Review of the Day: The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
When you think about it, many authors of children must have something they’re afraid to write. Some book or idea or concept that tempts them but that they wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot-pole. Religion is probably right up there on some people’s lists, regardless of the denomination. Is there a way to incorporate it seamlessly into a fantasy novel, retaining the parts you want, eschewing the rest? Is it wise to include at all? What constitutes religious writing at all? It’s rare that a book written for kids between the ages of nine to twelve makes me raise such questions at all, but I think a lot of us would agree that The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock isn’t just any old book. A skillful amalgamation of fantasy, religion, and just a hint of philosophy, Murdock eschews the old good vs. evil narrative for something, perhaps, more interesting: Truth vs. Delusion.
Everyone calls him Boy and he likes it that way. His is a simple life of tending the goats for the manor in the year 1350. He may be a hunchback and have to deal with the cruelty of kids his age, but life isn’t so bad. That is, until a stranger comes to call. Ostensibly a pilgrim, the man calls himself Secundus. He is in dire need of a boy to help him carry his mysterious pack. That and . . . some other odd jobs, let’s say. Boy doesn’t want to go at first, but as he learns more about Secundus’s quest, he begins to hope against hope. You see, Secundus seeks the relics of St. Peter so as to save his soul. Boy, on the other hand, wants his hump to go away. Could St. Peter help him with that? Or is there more to Boy than even he is willing to admit?
Generally speaking, Murdock has remained pretty squarely in the camp of the young adult novelist. Nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s just meant that I haven’t been able to read as many of her books as I’d like. I remember enjoying Princess Ben some years ago, of course. In this book for younger readers she scales back her text. Which, by extension, means reigning in character exposition as well. With the very first chapter we need to not only meet Boy but also love him. We also meet Secundus, and, like Boy, we don’t know what to make of him. The chapter itself is no longer than seven pages. How do you establish character in so short an amount of time? In the case of Boy, Murdock opts to show us his kindness and joy. He loves his life, as you can clearly see, just as much as he loves his goats. Secundus is introduced as insulting and brash in the first chapter, but in the second he defends Boy from a bully. Even then, you don’t know what to make of him. Excellent fodder for a story, don’t you think?
We live in times when people create fantasy novels for children exceeding three hundred, four hundred, sometimes even five hundred pages or more. All this to bring them stories they haven’t heard a hundred times before. It’s given me a taste for brevity, if nothing else. My husband has a phrase he likes to use when he sees a film that’s under two hours: “handsome”. Well, in every sense of the word The Book of Boy is a “handsome” novel. Weighing in at 278 pages the book could easily have been little more than one hundred if it had been printed a different way. No expense has been spared in its production. The pages are thick and beveled. The original artist assigned to it was exchanged for Ian Schoenherr, a man capable of replicating a very specific woodblock style. It’s a class act from start to finish, but even more than that it’s a book that knows how to distill an adventure down to its most singular elements. There’s not a word, a thought, or a concept out of place.
If kids complain about anything with this book, though, it’ll probably concern how little additional information we receive about Boy throughout the text. Just as a warning, I’m going to spill the beans on the big reveal in this book, so if you’re spoiler-averse I’d advise you to skip on down to the next paragraph. All set? Okay. So as I mentioned earlier, putting a big dollop of religion in your middle grade fantasy is by no means unheard of, it’s just tricky to pull off. Adam Gidwitz gave it a good shot in The Inquisitor’s Tale and received a Newbery Honor for his troubles. Murdock is traipsing along similar lines, but where Gidwitz is loquacious, she’s circumspect. Where he’s effusive she’s restrained. Both books involve angels, but where Gidwitz’s is all-knowing, Murdock’s could not be less well informed about, well, anything. We don’t really learn anything about him that he himself didn’t already know. Where he came from, why he’s here, and what he’s supposed to do . . . these are all left to the reader’s interpretation. Murdock’s giving you the dots, but you’re going to have to connect them yourself. Nothing is done for the reader here.
I can only speak for myself, but the real lure of this book might not be the characters, the mysteries, the setting, or even the mysterious relics. The book has something a little more difficult to pin down, and even harder to attain. It’s a sheer pleasure to read. I mean it. The chapters whiz on by, daring you to put the book down for even one iota of a second. Somehow Murdock has managed to write something simultaneously archaic in form and incredibly enticing to the modern eye. And it really doesn’t matter if the Christianity here gels with your own religious beliefs or strikes you as 100% foreign. Boy is the kind of character you can’t help but love. You want to go with him on this journey and, more to the point, you want him to see it to its end. If Boy is the living embodiment of kindness and joy, I can think of no better guide for young readers to encounter. We have a lot of dark, depressing, necessary books out there. Once, just once, let’s enjoy the one unafraid to let a little light and laughter in.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Tale of Angelino Brown by David Almond
- The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz
- The Girl With the Broken Wing by Heather Dyer
Catherine Murdock discusses the real life animal inspirations for the book:
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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