Review of the Day: Crispin At the Edge of the World
Jen Robinson also reviewed this book not too long ago. It's excellent I highly recommend that you consider her excellent post for an alternate opinion.
2006 has been a good year for Newbery sequels. First Louis Sacher comes out with, “Small Steps”, his follow-up to "Holes". Then Avi does the same with the second part of his Crispin series. “Crispin: At the Edge of the World” begins at the precise moment that “Crispin: The Cross of Lead” ended. Like its predecessor, the book is chock full of intelligent contemplations on the nature of “good” and “evil”. More importantly, with this book Avi is taking the time to show that a human being is a tricky changeable thing. That said, this is the weaker of the two books and feels very much to be the middle section of a three part series. There’s much to admire in Avi’s writing here, but I had a hard time getting past some of the story’s sadism to truly think it worthy reading.
When last we saw our young hero Crispin and Bear, his stalwart fatherly companion, the two had just left Great Wexly, but not before the elder of the two had suffered some severe torture. Weakened, Bear is further wounded by members of the secretive rebel brotherhood, to whom he belonged. The brotherhood now believes that Bear has betrayed them and they will stop at nothing to seek his death. Soon the two join up with a disfigured girl named Troth who helps to heal them and keep them safe. The three decide the next course of action is to find somewhere safe to live. Unfortunately the brotherhood is not so easily dissuaded and on top of everything else, Bear is increasingly perturbed by the fate of his own soul. Apparently there are things in the man’s past that haunt him still. Now Crispin must put away his idealized Bear and exchange him for something far more human. However unpleasant this change may be.
I was a little shocked at the fate of Bear in this book. In “Cross of Lead”, he was a bold, brash, bossy, wonderful fellow. He lent the title the joy, humor, and common sense it so sorely needed. Take away a humorous Bear and what you’re left with is 14th century muck and misery. I understand that to allow Crispin to grow, he needed to become independent of Bear. Keep Bear an active/interactive character and Crispin will never be able to show that when push comes to shove he’s a worthy and remarkable person. I understand this. Still, Avi takes it too far. Bear’s misery starts on page 2 and ends on 228 (three pages from the final Author’s Note). The suffering he feels at the hands of his own author is almost sadistic. If he hasn’t just been weakened by torture or received an arrow through his arm then he’s engulfed in fever or dragged by his neck from a horse. Avi leaves Bear with little to no dignity in this book, and I for one resented the fact. Yes, he had to become human in Crispin’s eyes and maybe humbled as well. But did you have to drag out his misery in the physical, spiritual, AND emotional sense? Did Avi himself hate this character so much that he couldn’t allow him his usual humor, thereby making the story that much more difficult to (pardon the word) bear? And will kids reading this book feel inclined to carry on in the series if a beloved character is destroyed in this manner? Imagine if J.K. Rowling tortured and wreaked Hagrid from the Harry Potter books. Because that is akin what I feel Avi has done to poor Bear here.
The quest Crispin seeks in this book is to find a safe place where he, Bear, and Troth can all live. Yet once the reader reaches the end of the book they find that this quest was basically doomed all along. At least one of the groups of bad guys in this book has inadvertently won and our heroes lose one of their members along the way. Now let’s be clear that I think the emotional journey Crispin takes in this book is well worth following. From the moment he mentions that he couldn’t think of Bear as anything but “goodness itself”, you can understand what the poor kid is going through. Nobody wants to see their hero brought low. And the writing itself often trips into the meaningful. “Lying there in the darkness, I though: is that what it is to be older – to know there are things you are afraid to know?” Or when our three protagonists find themselves on a little boat in the middle of a deadly storm and, “our sail had split into several parts, and was now flapping like so many flags – each one an offer of surrender.” THAT makes a book worthy reading, people. That is superb prose. If only the book had cheered up once in a while as well. There are moments, as when the characters settle briefly in a little island village, when you could label such passages as “less dark”. They’re never light though, and that means that the book itself, for all its beauty, is a depressing piece. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that, in an emotional sense, the book fails to deliver the punch a reader would require of it. If you can’t laugh with a book then you may have a hard time crying as well.
The title is a touch deceptive. Certainly the ending of the book consists of the story’s characters deciding amongst themselves to high-tail it North to the “edge of the world”. Still, to my mind that means that the third book in the series should have borne this title. Oh well. That's nitpicking. The Author’s Note in the back provides the average reader with further information pertaining to such things as who John Ball was, the fate of Richard II, and a tiny bit of info on the Hundred Years War. Do not expect, however, that kids reading this book will get much more info out of it than that. For further reading Avi just says this: “A good deal of information about the Bremen Cog may be found on the Internet.” Uh... duh. Howzabout mentioning where on the Internet to look?
I know I’m being unduly harsh on poor “At the Edge of the World”. I guess that “Cross of Lead” just lifted my expectations and I was hoping for something equally entrancing. It seems a bit ridiculous at this point to mention that “At the Edge of the World” is still heads and tails better than much of what is churned out and placed on booksellers' shelves. Still, when you take into consideration the whole of the Avi oeuvre (if I ever have a band I’m naming it The Avi Oeuvre) this book simply does not stand up. It’s perfectly nice, but I am looking forward to the third in the series. Let’s see if Avi can make us smile again.
Notes On the Cover: I like this one. The artist obviously read the book all the way through, and has done his research (perhaps “on the Internet”). The Bremen Cog featured here looks, to my untrained eye, perfect. Then you add in the wild but not ridiculously violent storm and the three perfectly rendered tiny figures cowering on the boat’s deck. It’s a particularly exciting moment in the book and well worth remembering here. Well done, Tristan Elwell. Mr. Elwell has a rather nice portfolio available for viewing, including one of my favorite cover images from the past 5 years. ). He also did the first Crispin cover that, in my opinion, captured the book’s heart beautifully.