Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Will Sparrow's Road

Will Sparrow's Road

Karen Cushman
Historical Fiction
For ages 10 and up
Clarion Books, 2012   ISBN: 978-0547739625

Will Sparrow is only thirteen years old but he has already experienced many trials and bad times. First his mother left, then his father, who had been a respected schoolmaster, became an often violent drunk. Consumed by his addiction for alcohol, Will’s father sold Will to an innkeeper for beer. Will now works as the inn, doing jobs for his master. Though his life is by no means a happy one, Will at least gets fed, though in his opinion he does not get fed enough. Driven by his hunger, Will steals a sausage here and a piece of bread there.

   Then one day Will steals a rabbit pie and is caught almost red-handed. The innkeeper decides that Will is costing him too much in food (for Will) and beer (for his father.) He will send Will to the city where the boy will be sold to a chimney sweet to be “a climbing boy.” Will cannot bear the idea of being forced to go up chimneys. He knows how terrible life is for climbing boys and that climbing boys don’t live long. As soon as he can, Will escapes from the innkeeper and runs away. Will decides from now on he will “care for no one by myself and nothing but my belly.”

   Will moves as fast as he can, eating berries, and stealing apples along the way. He meets a runaway thief, a woman called Nell Liftpurse, and when he lets down his guard she steals his bag of apples and his blanket. Furious with the woman for her trickery and deceit, Will is more determined than ever to look out for himself and no one else.

   After being also being cheated by a tooth puller, Will finds himself in a town where a market fair is in full swing. There are booths and stalls all over the place where food, drink, and handmade goods are being sold. There are performers of all kinds and a show where visitors can see “oddities and prodigies,” such as a mermaid baby, the head of a one-eyed pig, and a three-legged chicken. Fitz, a small (and bad tempered) dwarf, and Greymalkin, a girl who is half human and half wild cat, are also part of the show.  In addition to this show, there is a conjurer at the fair who ends up employing Will to drum up business. Will is very good at convincing people to come and watch the conjurer and he dares to hope that perhaps he has a good job for a while, but the conjurer leaves the fair unexpectedly. Before he leaves, he arranges for the manager of the oddities and prodigies show, Master Tidball, to offer Will a job.

   Will thinks well of his new master, who feeds and even pays the boy. However, he does not like Fitz, and the cat girl rather frightens him so he keeps his distance from her. He grows to like another fair follower, Master Samuel Knobby, who travels with Duchess, an enormous pig who can do all kinds of tricks and who is gentle creature.

   Though Master Tidball soon stops paying Will any wages, Will does get food every day, and the work he is expected to do is not too onerous. He helps take care of Solomon, the horse who pulls the cart, and he sets up and takes down the booth at the fairs that they visit.

   Then Will starts to get to know Fitz better, and he even talks to the cat girl. The girl is tired of being used and abused by her master, so she gives herself a proper name and she refuses to perform in a fierce and cat-like way for the people who visit the booth. When Master Tidball becomes increasingly nasty, Will starts to care about someone other than himself for the first time in his life.

   In this rich, colorful, and fascinating work of historical fiction, Karen Kushman explores the world of fairs and fair people in England during Elizabeth I’s reign. She honestly shows that life in England at this time was often harsh and cruel. Children were sold into what amounted to slavery, and people who were different were often persecuted or laughed at. This grim aspect of the story is tempered by her characters, who are wonderfully real and colorful, and many of them having a softer and gentler side. Readers will enjoy seeing how Will changes over time as he moves away from caring only for himself and his “belly” and starts to care about others.