Friday, February 12, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Trumpeter of Krakow, by Eric P. Kelly (1929)

This is the edition that I read.
There are more appealing covers,
but I thought you should suffer as I did.
We're going to skip to the end of the Newbery's first decade now and take a look at the winner of the 1929 medal: Eric P. Kelly's rousing adventure of late Medieval/early Renaissance Poland, The Trumpeter of Krakow. 

When I was searching Goodreads for the books that I plan to read for this Newbery Wayback plan, I kept coming across my friends' reviews of these books. Of Trumpeter, Colby Sharp said: "I have no idea why I'm giving this book 2 stars instead of 1. I think mostly because I'm giving myself a bonus star because I finished it in one sitting." Well, Mr. Sharp, color me impressed. I had trouble getting through a single chapter without nodding off, so you must have had some strong coffee at your disposal. 

But look: I told myself I wasn't going to be uncharitable in this review and I'm already unleashing the snark. 

The Trumpeter of Krakow combines two genres that seemed to be frequently lauded during the first decade of the Newbery: historical fiction and stories about Faraway Lands. It tells the story of a father, mother, and son who makes their way to Krakow after their estate is destroyed by Tartars. In their possession is the MacGuffin Great Tarnov Crystal, which the family has sworn to hide and eventually deliver to the king of Poland. The Good Jan Kanty finds them lodgings in the same building as an alchemist and his beautiful daughter. An evil Tartar tries to get the Crystal. He doesn't succeed. There is a big fire and the kids get married at the end. 

In the spirit of charity, let's talk about what Kelly gets right: setting. Even a modern reader has to admit, I think, that Kelly's evocation of fifteenth century Poland is vivid and well-researched*. The city of Krakow is probably the most well-developed character in the novel. While the other characters' personalities may be flat, at least we know exactly what they're wearing. (This is true almost ad absurdum - I felt like I was watching Project Runway: Medieval Krakow when I read descriptions like this, of a watchman who only appears in the book for two pages: "He was a man perhaps past middle age, clad in a garment of leather over which was a very light chain armor poorly woven; this fell like a skirt with pointed edges just below the knees. Above the waist the links of armor were a bit heavier, extending over the shoulders and back into long sleeves clear to the wrist, and up past the neck to a kind of head-covering like a cowl, over which he wore a pointed helmet of rough metal. Outside the armor he wore a very short leather vest caught with a belt  from which hung a short sword, and across the shoulders just below the neck another belt with a buckle at the left, where the halberd could be secured and balanced." Make it work, Kelly!)

And that description is fairly representative of Kelly's treatment of his characters. They are types: the swarthy, scar-faced Tartar; the skulking half-wit; the pure and beautiful young girl. After taking the era to task over its rampant superstition, Kelly indulges in the most blatant physiognomy in his description of the evil young student who leads the alchemist astray: "But the nose was thin and mean, the mouth was small and smug, and out of the eyes came a look that signified an utterly selfish spirit behind them." 

If the characters were lacking, I was hoping to at least get caught up in the plot, which The Horn Book described as "a tale of exciting adventure." While it's true that a great deal of things happen, Kelly's prose has an oddly detached quality that robs the action of all immediacy. The dialogue in particular is laughably flat. When the band of Tartars invades the family's lodgings and captures the boy, the alchemist responds to the life-threatening situation taking place outside his door like so: "Whew, thought the alchemist, they silenced the boy. A gag, probably." Darn it, and they're probably going to kill him too. 

Trumpeter was well-received in its day. It emerged from MacMillan under the guidance of Louise Seaman Bechtel, the rock star children's editor of the Newbery's first few decades. Anne Carroll Moore called it "a thrilling, well-written adventure mystery story" in her round-up of "representative" books of 1928

Should it have won the medal? Given that six honor books were named that year, we can conclude that 1928 was considered a very good year for children's publishing. Only one of those books is still widely read - much more widely than Trumpeter, I'd wager - and that is Wanda Gag's Millions of Cats. In Minders of Make-Believe, Leonard Marcus observes, "When librarians awarded Millions of Cats a Newbery Honor, they chose to recognize the book's distinction while apparently not feeling quite right about giving the literature prize to a picture book." 

I agree. There's no question that Millions of Cats is the better book, and I bet this past year's Newbery committee would have given it the big gold sticker. 

*Well... mostly. It turns out that the legend at the center of the novel may be the result of a misunderstanding on Kelly's part. They really do play the Heynal from the tower of St. Mary's, and it really does break off in the middle, but the story behind the broken note may have been invented by Kelly on the basis of a misinterpretation: "Kelly, who was teaching at the Jagiellonian University on a scholar exchange in 1925-26, admitted that he did not speak the Polish language very well when he wrote the story, and had relied on French-speaking friends to translate."


  1. The Trumpeter of Krakow is next on my bedside table to be read. I am currently reading Tales from Silver Lands which I have found to be more enjoyable than most of the rest of the 1920s.I think it helps that it is short stories.

    So far I have read 10 winners and honor books from the 20s and I would definitely say the undisputed best of them is Millions of Cats which I read regularly to both my children and grandchildren. It is the only one from the 20s I knew well before challenging myself to read as many of the Newberys as possible. (only 199 to go!)

  2. I finally got to this one after reading several from other decades first. I just wasn't up to reading another one from the 20s so quickly. I must say that by 1920s Newbery standards this one wasn't too bad. Yes the characters and dialogue ard flat and yes there is no shades of grey in any of the characters. But it is a blessedly short book that is a quick read and is completely comprehensible. This is high praise when compared to Smoky the Cowhorse or The Story of Mankind.

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