1929: The Trumpeter of Krakow (Shiny Objects are Dangerous)


Laurinda’s Rating: 2

The Trumpeter of Krakow, Eric Kelly’s 1929 Newbery Medal Winner, falls into the genre of (a)historical fiction. The story opens in 1241, with the sacking of Krakow by the Tartars. During the attack, a youth kept his oath to sound the Heynal (trumpet song) at the Church of Our Lady Mary; it cost him his life. Ever after, the Heynal ended where the youth’s song was broken by a Tartar arrow. Although the practice itself is ancient, Kelly’s is the first written version of this particular story. Whatever. Kelly does a good job selling the story.

The main narration begins in 1461. We meet a family fleeing to Krakow from their estate in Ukraine. They carry only a pumpkin. It must have been a very special pumpkin, considering that pumpkins are native to the Americas and hadn’t yet been introduced to Europe. Details. On the road into Krakow, the horseman attempts to divest the Charnetski family of their pumpkin. The son Joseph’s quick thinking helps the family avoid that fate. After discovering that the family with whom they hoped to take shelter had been forced out of the city by a mob, the Charnetskis change their name and take up residence with a scholar/alchemist. The father, Andrew, takes the oath at the Church of Our Lady Mary and becomes the night trumpeter. Joseph makes friends with the alchemist’s niece, Elzbietka, and enrolls in the college.

The stranger they met on the road, Peter the Button Face (so named for a scar, not because he was cute), finds the family by chance and attacks their dwellings. The alchemist, Kreutz, helps repel the men through the application of Greek fire (though it’s really because the men think he’s a demon). However, in the kerfuffle, the gem hidden in the pumpkin is “lost”. The Charnetskis assume Peter has it, while he assumes the opposite. Thus, they suffer his attentions once more, when he and his men bottle them up in the tower from which they play the Heynal. Joseph signals Elzbietka by adding notes to the Heynal. She, in turn, braves brigands and summons the Watch to help them. As always, Peter slips away.

That crystal? Turns out that Kreutz, overcome by the powers of the Great Tarnov Crystal, kept it. The crystal supposedly holds the secrets to everything. Kreutz’s apprentice takes over his mind and forces him to seek the key to transforming brass to gold. The process doesn’t quite go as planned. Instead, they blow up the house and start a fire that destroys a third of the city. A befuddled Kreutz reappears after the blaze dies down and is immediately snagged by Pan Andrew when he sees the gem. The whole cavalcade present the gem to the King, telling him its entire history. In the meantime, the King’s guard had captured Peter, who reveals that the crystal was to be the Golden Horde’s price for overrunning Ukraine (Polish territory at that time). Crazy Kreutz grabs the crystal and hurls it into the river. The end. Ok, not quite. Joseph gets a degree, marries Elzbietka, and returns to his father’s restored estate to manage it. The end? Nope. The author sticks in an epilogue, in which he feels the need to provide a detailed description of Krakow in 1926.

Like most of the 1920’s books, this one was tediously over-described. In this instance, I suspect the author was trying to cram as much of his research into the book as possible. If you were so inclined, you could probably use the descriptions to map out 1461 Krakow and draw pictures of the buildings, people, Tartar wolf-dogs, fake Armenia wool merchants etc. I’m not, so the language just slowed down the pacing of the book. Also, the author clearly had a complicated view of magic/alchemy and the muddled depiction limits the power of it as a plot device. Ex: The Great Crystal has X, Y, and Z powers. Oh, but it’s probably just caused by hypnosis like that practiced today. Fine, but the characters believed in the supernatural/magic, so the author’s injection of explanations is completely unnecessary and weakens that plot point.

I didn’t hate the book. The overall plot existed. It wasn’t extremely riveting, but it certainly beat Smoky and Gay-Neck. The use of a pumpkin drove me nuts. THEY AREN’T ON THAT CONTINENT YET. Ahem, sorry. The moral of this story? Avoid shiny objects. The Great Crystal of Tarnov brought only pain to its owners and almost triggered the destruction of an entire nation.



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