So I expected that I would like The Trumpeter of Krakow. I was looking forward to reading about medieval (or mid-evil, as one kid wrote in his review) Poland, as I like historical fiction, and have especially liked most of the other Newbery winners set in the Middle Ages.
Sadly, I really didn't enjoy The Trumpeter much. Maybe I'm becoming curmudgeonly, because the only medalist I've really liked out of the fourteen I've read in the last year is Criss Cross. Or maybe I picked all the best ones first, and now that I'm near the end of all of the Newbery winners, I'm scraping the bottom of the barrel. But I thought I was going like The Trumpeter of Krakow!
My problem with the story started right away in the first chapter - "The Man Who Wouldn't Sell His Pumpkins". The first sentence of the chapter states that "It was in late July of the year 1461 that the sun rose one morning red and fiery as if ushering in the midsummer's hottest day" (p. 7). Some interesting descriptions of wagons and people on the road to Krakow follow, and we meet the villain, whom you can tell is really bad because he's so ugly:
"It was the face, however, that betrayed the soul beneath. It was a dark, oval, wicked face - the eyes were greenish and narrow and the eyebrow line above them ran straight across the bridge of the nose, giving the effect of a monkey rather than a man. One cheek was marked with a buttonlike scar, the scar of the button plague that is so common in the lands east of the Volga, or even the Dnieper, and marks the bearer as a Tartar or a Cossack or a Mongol. The ears were low set and ugly. The mouth looked like the slit that boys make in the pumpkins they carry on the eve of Allhallows" (p. 12).
Now hold it right there. In 1461, boys in Poland did not make jack-o-lanterns out of pumpkins. Squash and pumpkins were domesticated by the American Indians in prehistoric North America, and before 1492, there wasn't much of chance for Europeans to grow pumpkins (or tomatoes, chili peppers, kidney/pinto/Lima beans, tobacco, maize, potatoes, zinnias or petunias, either). Well, maybe this wasn't widely known in 1928, and anyway, it's only a descriptive passage.
But wait a minute. A few pages later, we learn that a man, a woman, and their son have a huge yellow pumpkin in their wagon - and the man (Pan Andrew, or Mr. Andrew) refuses to sell it to the villain, even for its weight in gold. Well, that's where the name of the chapter comes from, obviously, but this late-season pumpkin from the steppes just bothered me. It made me suspicious of all of the other historical descriptions in the book.
I never really felt close to any of the main characters - Joseph (Andrew's son), his mother, Andrew the trumpeter, the alchemist Kreutz, or Kreutz's niece, Elzbietka. The mystery and the suspense that others applaud felt mechanical and forced to me. Although I enjoyed the rather lengthy descriptions of medieval Krakow, with its pillories, university students, cloth traders, night watchmen, and priests, I suspect my 12 year old son wouldn't find it as interesting as I did, especially in the absence of more engaging characters.
I guess I'm glad that so many other people still enjoy this story, but (as with Shen of the Sea), I'm at a loss as to why I don't like it more when so many others do. The whole alchemy and hypnotism story line didn't do much for me, either. But maybe I would have liked it a lot more if not for the pumpkins.