A monk, a Jew and a peasant walk into an inn.
What follows isn’t a punchline, but a heartwarming tale of three unlikely heroes who become friends despite a society that pits them against one another as enemies.
At 4:15 p.m. Wednesday in Smith Memorial Library, the CLSC Young Readers program will discuss The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz. The story follows the journey of the bizarre trio — and their dog — who in 1242 have become the most wanted criminals in France.
There’s William, raised in a monastery and taught that both Jews and “daughters of Eve” are in league with the devil. Jeanne, who’s never met someone of a different faith and hates the monks that took her beloved neighbor away. And Jacob, who doesn’t trust Christians after his Jewish town is destroyed by anti-Semitic teens.
The story is told through shifting narrators. A group of strangers at an inn, the same one where the medieval Scooby-Doo gang meets, each share the part of the story he or she witnessed.
“It’s so engaging,” said Karen Schiavone, Special Studies and youth programs associate. “You’re just getting bits and pieces of the story from different people. There’s no one person in the book who knows the entire story.”
To inspire children to think about different ways of storytelling, the Chautauqua Opera Company will lead a series of improvisational games following today’s book discussion.
As the narration shifts throughout the novel, so does the voice and style of the writing. But one thing remains constant: the theme of acceptance and faith.
The children soon realize they’re not all too different, regardless of what they’ve been taught. Gender, class, race and, most poignantly, religion aren’t factors that should make them hate one another.
“Just a few days ago William and Jeanne would have begged Jacob to follow Christ,” Gidwitz writes in the story. “Now, the idea of it seemed ludicrous. If God would save their souls, surely, surely He would save Jacob’s too. What difference was there between them, except the language in which he prayed?”
Schiavone said The Inquisitor’s Tale is the ideal novel to invite children into the discussion of Week Three’s theme, “A Crisis of Faith?” The trio’s piety is tested with every physical and emotional battle they face. Why would God take their loved ones, ruin their homes and put them “through Hell?” Why not, as Jacob puts it with an angry snap of his fingers, “just make it happen”?
But readers, along with the children, learn that “God does not work like poof!” He works through people, people who are willing to look beyond superficial differences. He works through children who are able to readjust the prejudices instilled in them by xenophobic elders.
“These three different kids come from completely different backgrounds with completely different religious perspectives, and yet they work together to accomplish a goal,” Schiavone said. “At a time when adults are having a difficult time doing that, reading a book like this is as difficult as it is inspiring.”
Schiavone hopes that by sharing stories like this, children will learn to appreciate one another’s differences at an early age. Although the story takes place almost 800 years ago, Schiavone said it makes her wonder how much has changed since then.
In an author’s note at the end of the story, Gidwitz writes that as he put the finishing touches on the novel, more than a 140 people were killed in a terrorist attack in Paris.
“Zealots kill, and the victims retaliate with killing, and the cycle continues, extending forward and backward in history, apparently without end,” Gidwitz writes. “I can think of nothing sane to say about this except this book.”