This book was written by Eric P. Kelly in 1928 and won a Newbery award in 1929. It tells the true story of a 12th century boy in Krakow who dies will blowing a trumpet on the town walls during the invasion of the Tartars. Then it tells the fictional story of a 14th century boy who learns to sound those same notes and honor the memory of the fallen trumpeter.
While I’m always happy to read a Newbery award-winner, I became interested in this book when I visited Krakow in 2011. My grandfather came to America from Poland, so this trip had special significance. Krakow was one of my favorite cities in Eastern Europe. When we entered the town, passing under its medieval walls, our guidebook mentioned this famous trumpeter.
Reading this book was in some ways, like revisiting the city. Kelly describes the neighborhoods, the streets, the Cloth Market, the Vistula River, and the winding road leading up to Wawel Castle. I found it sort of fascinating to think that this book was written through the eyes of someone who visited the city in the 1920’s, while it tells the story of life in the city many years earlier.
And this book is really about medieval life in the city of Krakow more than a specific battle or conflict. Kelly sets a scene for us of a city bustling with merchants and university students. Specifically, he describes the conflict of the day among religion, science, and the occult.
Joseph Charnetsky is a fifteen-year-old boy who comes to Krakow with his family. They have lost their home in the Ukraine and have nowhere to go. Joseph’s family is protecting a valuable artifact, the Tarnov Crystal, which they must deliver to the safety of the King before it is stolen from them. Fortunately, Joseph rescues a girl from a dog attack and they are given a place to stay by the girl’s uncle, Nicolas Kreutz. Kreutz is a good man, but he’s falling under the influence of a wicked young man who is obsessed with creating gold and finding the philosopher’s stone.
This story is not historical, but it does have as its background a great fire that took out much of the city in 1462.
According to Wikipedia, Kelly is an American author who first visited Poland in 1919 while working for a French welfare organization. He served with the Polish military for the next two years during the Polish-Soviet War. He returned to study in Krakow in 1925 as the first American exchange scholar.
This book was a slow read at times, and I think you’d have to be really interested in either Poland or medieval history to really enjoy it. Still, for me it brought back memories of my trip to Krakow, and gave me an entirely new perspective.
I read this book for the Classics Club Spin – my review was due by April 2, so I’ve missed by a bit. But who’s counting? This book also counts for the Around the World Challenge.