Karen Cushman has long been my favorite middle grade historical fiction author. She’s written eight novels in this genre, including Newbery winner The Midwife’s Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy, which won a Newbery Honor. Until last year, all her novels featured girls as the main characters. Fans would ask her, “Will you ever write a book about a boy?” This inquiry prompted her to write Will Sparrow’s Road, released late last year.
Will is a twelve-year-old English lad trying to make his way in the year 1599. His mother abandoned him. His father sold him to an innkeeper in exchange for free ale. As a means of survival, Will becomes a thief and a liar. When the innkeeper threatens to send him to the city as a chimney sweep, Will runs away. He lives by the motto, “I care for no one but myself and nothing but my belly.” He encounters a series of conniving characters, all of whom disappoint him and leave him feeling even more hopeless. Nell Liftpurse steals his blanket and sack of apples. Dr. Hieronymus Munster, “tooth puller and traveling purveyor of remedies,” cheats him out of promised food and wages. A conjurer briefly befriends Will, but warns him, “Things are not always as they appear.” Will’s circumstances are so bleak, the reader longs for him to find someone who will care about him, or at the very least, a warm dry place to sleep.
At a fair, Will meets Thomas Tidball, who owns a traveling “oddities and prodigies” sideshow. Inside Tidball’s booth, thrill seekers find a three-legged chicken, the skull of a unicorn, and preserved in glass jars, such curiosities as a one-eyed pig and a baby mermaid. But oddest of all is a monstrous half girl/half cat named Greymalkin. Tidball promises Will a tuppence and dinner daily if Will drives Tidball’s wagon and helps his assistant Lancelot Fitzgeoffrey. Initially Tidball seems to care about his entourage, but this freak show owner ultimately shows his true nature.
Over the course of his journey, Will grows from a desperate, self-centered boy into someone who truly cares about other people. He finds a family in Fitz, the girl/cat, (who prefers to be called Grace), a blind juggler, an entertainer named Samuel and his intelligent pig Duchess.
Cushman writes her stories using a degree of medieval vernacular, which at times slows the reader down, but it also lends the story a sense of authenticity. Highly recommended for those who enjoy middle grade historical fiction.