Linda Press Wulf’s first YA novel, The Night of the Burning, was published in 2006/7. It garnered excellent reviews as well as a Sydney Taylor award and Honor. Based on the few facts her husband knows about his late mother, it’s set in the 1920s. Wulf’s second novel, takes us even further back in time, to France in the early 13th century.
There we meet Georgette, a country girl who keeps house for her widowed father and brother Gregor. She also earns a meagre addition to the housekeeping money by looking after the local parish priest, a holy man called Father David who has turned his back on the riches and power of the established Roman Catholic Church.
Father David is the polar opposite of Pere Benedict, the abbot of Blois, who has ambitions to establish himself as a powerful force in the church. When the abbot takes a foundling called Robert under his wing, he decides to mould the lad in his own image, for his own ends.
But soon Robert and Georgette are lured away from both priests by the children’s crusade passing through their town. Their attempts to reach the Holy Land founder in Marseilles but their spiritual journey continues, as they try to reconcile their faith with the horror and injustice they see in the world around them.
There are only three contemporary accounts of the Children’s Crusade and these are barely a paragraph long. Longer studies were written much later, the most authoritative being that of a Cisterian monk called Alberic Of Tross-Fontaines from his opus Chronica Alberici Monachi Trium Fontium. By then oral tradition had developed the event into a legend that bore scant resemblance to the truth and was continuously embellished by historians and storytellers alike.
According to the latest research, there seems to have been two large gatherings of people - most of whom were adults and not children - wandering around the French and German countryside in 1212. The first was in Germany. Led by a charismatic young man called Nikolaus, some 7000 pilgrims crossed the Alps into Genoa where they expected the sea to part and form a road to Jerusalem. The predicted miracle did not take place and the group disbanded. Some pilgrims travelled on to Marseille where they might have been abducted and sold into slavery.
The second movement took place in France and was led by a shepherd boy from Cloyes who claimed that Jesus had given him a letter to pass on to King Philip the Second. His followers reported seeing him work miracles but the French monarch ordered the pilgrims to disband and they obeyed. None of the information that we have about Prophet Stephen mention his plans to conquer Jerusalem.
Wulf draws from both accounts for her book. She tells the story simply and with conviction. This is no swashbuckling epic. You’ll never hear the ring of Christian sword against Muslim scimitar, or witness hundreds of crusaders galloping across desert sand. The violent episodes in the narrative happen off-page, with Georgette and Robert hearing about them rather than witnessing them or being part of them. It is none the less a gripping read. Wulf’s descriptions of the main characters’ spiritual awakening are both accurate and moving, and this is the main strength of the book. This is a story that pushes the envelope and deserves to be a hit!