CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 1 . . . . September 6, 2002
This haunting, wistful tale of friendship set in a 14th century abbey near Paris as the Plague descends on France will both repel and fascinate middle school readers. A Company of Fools brings ancient religious life into sharp focus as it touches the heart. Henri, a shy, scholarly orphan taken in by the monks, is assigned the task of integrating Micah, a boisterous show-off thief with the voice of an angel, into abbey life. As Henri struggles with Micah's ignorance and flat-out sense of fun, he finds himself drawn into a powerful friendship. When the horror of the Plague reaches Paris and the abbey, Henri and Micah accompany a group of monks whose singing and jokes, as they perform under the name of A Company of Fools, seem to lighten people's hearts. Believing the Micah's singing seems to cure some people, both the mob and Micah's ego grow out of control. Not until the death of the youngest, most innocent choirboy, does Micah realize that his actions have no influence on the Plague.
This book is a chronicle, Henri's first person narration of the events at St. Luc's Abbey in 1347-1348. Henri's voice is that of a young boy who needs to document the best time of his life. The omniscient reader from the science dominated 21st century is horrified by 14th century ignorance. Yet the message of man's humanity to man rings clearly as we watch the monks attempting to live well and help others. Henri's final hiding of his journal gives the impression that you, the reader, have discovered it some seven centuries later. And this is the strength of all excellent historical fiction: the reader feels present in the past. The setting of an ancient abbey would be foreign to most of today's children, but Ellis has created a vivid picture of both the buildings and more importantly, the daily rhythm of life there. Also heart wrenching and amusing is the playful nature of boys, which hasn't changed over the centuries. The drawing of the abbey, the map of the Plague's spread in Europe, the glossary and the historical note help to clarify the setting. Good historical fiction slips facts into the action. So we see the Flagellants through Henri's terrified eyes, and we witness pilgrims leaving Paris for the supposedly safer countryside. But most of all, the gruesome details of the Plague's effects on the body are gradually revealed as the choirboys initially gleefully point out sufferers' frantic "dance" but later vomit as they look into a death pit. The dialogue in this book is sharp and moves the plot along. Although Henri is reflective and this is a chronicle, Micah's antics and the ominous nature of the Plague draw the reader onward. Good characterization compels the reader to continue in order to find out how Henri can have lived to narrate the events and what happen to Micah. Is humanity the "company of fools"? Ellis would seem to lead us to believe this as, on the final page of his journal, Henri declares that he is sure that man, having lived through the Plague, has learned to be compassionate and peaceful. On the other hand, this book reminds us that laughter soothes souls and the eternal nature of friendship builds character and joy.
Joan Marshall is the teacher-librarian at Fort Richmond Collegiate in Winnipeg, MB.
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