Saturday, March 1, 2008

Eric P. Kelly

The Trumpeter of Krakow
by Eric P. Kelly
Recommended Age: 10+

The winner of the 1929 Newbery Medal is an action-packed historical novel set in 15th-century Poland. But its historical roots go even deeper.

It begins with something that actually happened in the 13th century. As the Tartars invaded and pillaged the medieval city of Krakow, and most citizens took refuge behind the castle walls, one brave young man stayed at his post in the tower of the Church of Our Lady Mary. He had sworn to sound the hymn tune Heynal on a trumpet every hour on the hour. Even while Tartar archers waited at the base of the tower with their arrows pointed upward, the lad did his duty. Until an arrow pierced his chest, cutting off the Heynal tune in mid-note.

For centuries since then, the citizens of Krakow have been inspired by this story of courage and duty. The story is kept alive by the tradition of blowing that trumpet tune every hour, but leaving it unfinished, ending with a "broken note." So it is in the year 1461, when Joseph and his parents arrive on a cart, fleeing from the ruin of their Ukrainian farm.

Joseph's father is heir to a line of men entrusted with a beautiful, legendary, and much-sought-after treasure: the Great Crystal of Tarnov. It is believed to have magical powers, and it is certainly priceless. So much blood has been shed over it already, and now a band of ruffians - evidently in the pay of someone very powerful - has destroyed their home looking for it. So Joseph's father comes to Krakow to discharge himself of his duty: to protect the Crystal until it is in the hands of the King.

But troubles follow Joseph's family to Krakow, even after they change their name and take up lodging downstairs from an alchemist, even after Joseph and his father join the corps of trumpeters playing the hourly "broken note" from the church tower. A brutal and resourceful criminal, known (among other things) as Bogdan the Terrible, is pursuing the Crystal relentlessly. An alchemy student, who dabbles in the dark arts, is exerting ominous influences over the upstairs neighbor. Betrayal, burglary, hostage-taking, and finally a city-consuming fire become part of the drama. And of course Joseph plays his heroic part, in keeping with the tradition of the trumpeter of Krakow.

Told in a very individual writing style that may strike today's young readers as just a little wordy and old-fashioned, this is a clever romantic adventure steeped in the author's love for Poland and its traditions. Unlike some adventure stories, it doesn't have the obvious hero (Joseph) rising to unbelievable heights of heroism, but as historical fiction it is very respectful of historical reality.

With a good deal of dabbling in alchemy and hypnotism, it may delight fans of Nicolas Flamel and the philosopher's stone (sound familiar to anyone?), and the ending brings to mind The Lord of the Rings. But it is really a striking and distinctive story of its own, which threatens to teach you a lot about life in Medieval Eastern Europe and maybe make you want to learn more.

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