Since Crispin's our narrator, and he's telling a story about himself, we learn a lot about how Crispin is feeling about what's happening to him through his tone. Early in the book, Crispin's tone is desperate. He feels that everyone he ever relied on has deserted him—his mother, Father Quinel, and even God. Look at how he describes his discovery of Father Quinel's body:
Stifling a shriek, I knelt down, my whole body shaking. Terrified, I made a short and desperate prayer to Saint Giles, imploring his blessings on the priest and on myself. That done, I ran away.
God, I was certain, had completely abandoned me. (11.26-27)
Any time you see "imploring" in the mix, the tone is probably desperate. But once Crispin's no longer in immediate danger, he has time to process what's happened to him, and he spends much of his time on the road with Bear reflecting on the events of his life, how his life has changed, and what this all means for his future:
Bear had to be wrong. Yet I found myself thinking it was not so bad to have fallen in with him. To be sure, he was a rough-and-ready man. The things he said confused me. Even his calling me by the name Crispin was unsettling.
Still, if Bear fed me and protected me, I might, at least, survive a little while. In any case I had little choice. God had willed it.
And yet—thinking on what he said—I asked myself if I were to live by questions, what questions would they be? About my father? And those things Father Quinel had said about my mother—if they be true or not. And maybe—I allowed—I'd ask what was to be my fate. (24.63-65)
No longer feeling completely lost and alone, here we see Crispin reflecting, trying to wrap his mind around Bear and what he's told him and make some sense of his current situation. And by the end, Crispin moves onto hope about his future. You know, because he actually believes he has one:
And by the ever-loving God who sits above, my heart was full of more joy than I had ever felt before. I was unfettered, alive to an earth I hardly knew but was eager to explore. What's more, I knew that feeling to be my newfound soul, a soul that lived in freedom. And my name—I knew with all my heart—was Crispin. (58.46)
Sometimes the tone in a book stays pretty much the same throughout, but in this case, as Crispin's lot improves in life, his tone cheers up as well.
Crispin: The Cross of Lead is set in the 14th century and is all about a thirteen-year-old boy who manages to survive some seriously exciting times. We know it's a young adult book because it is about a young person who deals with classic growing up issues, such as functioning separately from his parents and finding his identity.
Historical fiction refers to any story set in the real world but way back in the day, and since our story's set in 1377, we'd say it fits the bill, especially since it references the Black Death on the regular. As for adventure stories, they contain things like desperate chases, theft, murder, sword fights, and more, all of which Crispin encounters as he makes his way with Bear. Put all together, Crispin: The Cross of Lead is a young adult historical fiction adventure book. Boom.
Crispin's name is in the title, so we know the book is about him—well, him and that cross of lead, which, hey, also turns out to have a key part of Crispin's identity written on it. The question is why Crispin's name is in the title. Avi could have just called the book The Cross of Lead, which is still a good title. By including Crispin's name in the title, though, Avi draws our attention to the character. The book is about more than just the cross of lead: It's really all about Crispin's transformation from Asta's son to, well, Crispin.
Having at last escaped the evil John Aycliffe, Crispin and Bear leave Great Wexly to the sound of their own music and singing. Having defeated Aycliffe, Crispin is full of joy and declares that he has found both his soul and his name. He says, "And my name—I knew with all my heart—was Crispin" (58.46). This is a big deal for a boy who has spent thirteen years thinking he isn't even worthy of a name greater than "Asta's son" and who recently discovered that the father he is named for was kind of a jerk.
Taking the name Crispin as his own indicates two major points: He now believes himself worthy of a name—his self-esteem has come a long way since he left Stromford—and he's able to separate himself from the father who never wanted him enough, to the point that it doesn't bother him any longer that they share a name. Crispin is his own man, a free man who will not be bound by who his father was.
Sometimes we have to read a bit in order to figure out a book's setting, but in this case, we know for sure because it announces it at the top of the first chapter. "A.D." stands for Anno Domini, which is Latin for "in the year of Our Lord." Well into the 20th century, "A.D." was used to count years after the birth of Christ. Now it's more common to see "C.E." for "Common Era," though. Whatever initials we give it, 1377 is the same year, and it's late in the 14th century.
It's an exciting time to be alive, and by exciting we mean terrifying. The 14th century is famous for several reasons, all of them likely to kill us. This is the time of the Great Mortality (better known today as the Black Death), the Hundred Years' War, and the Peasants' Revolt, just to name a few. Two things defined the everyday lives of people in 14th century Europe—constant violence and constant religion, sometimes separate, but often together.
The 14th century is part of the Late Middle Ages, when feudalism was dying and people were beginning to have the kinds of thoughts that would lead to the Renaissance. The tumult of this period mirrors the uncertainty of Crispin's personal journey, adding adventure and roadblocks thanks to some seriously wack rules and social hierarchies.
Our larger setting is England, though we don't see very much of it in this book. Instead we travel with Crispin as he makes his way from the village of Stromford, a fictional but typical Medieval English manor and village, to the city of Great Wexly, a fictional but typical Medieval English walled city. On the way, Crispin passes such fictional but typical sights as a hanged man and a plague-stricken village. Hey, we told you the 14th century was exciting, so England proper pretty much takes a backseat.
Overall, Crispin: The Cross of Lead is a straightforward read. It's a fast-paced adventure that pulls readers along, and we're not dealing with flashbacks or sudden jumps in time or a whole lot of characters. It's pretty clear who the good guys and the bad guys are, so we don't have to spend a lot of energy figuring out whom we should root for, either.
There are a few references to everyday items used in the 14th century that haven't quite made it to our time, and a few prayers in Latin, but Avi is quick to let us know what these items are for and what those priests are chanting, so we don't stay lost for long. Thanks, Avi.
Like a road between small villages, the plot moves along in a straight line in Crispin: The Cross of Lead, meaning we don't need to worry about flashbacks or tangents. And for the most part, we don't have to pick through a lot of flashy figurative language to figure out what the author means, either, though the language used by the characters is lovely and lyrical at the same time. For example, check out this scene where Bear teaches Crispin to play the recorder:
He began by instructing me about the pipe's holes—the stops, he called them—and the way to shape my mouth around the blowing end, how to shift my fingers, how to make different sounds.
Reluctantly, I took up the recorder, and with fingers like soft clay, tried to play. What came out were sorry, shallow squeaks. "You see," I said, "I can't do it." I offered him back his pipe. (26.1-2)
This passage gets straight to the point, but it does so in an elegant way. There's no confusion about what's happening, but phrases like "fingers like soft clay" add a poetic element to the mix, too.
It's in the title, so we might anticipate that the cross of lead is the most important symbol in the book, and it's symbolic in a number of ways. Let's count them, shall we?
As the one possession of Asta's that her son inherits, the cross of lead is an important symbol of the bond between mother and child and the initial reason Crispin feels such a strong attachment to it.
Father Quinel gives it to Asta's son:
The priest became very still. Then, from his pocket, he removed my mother's cross of lead, the one with which she so often prayed, which was in her hands when she died. (8.81)
Later, Crispin insists, "It's precious to me" (28.31). Of course it is. Not only is Asta dead, leaving Crispin an orphan in the world, but he's never known his father, so Asta was his lone parent, which can only make her that much more meaningful to her son.
Though Asta told her son his father died in the Great Death, it's clear there were many things she wasn't honest with him about, including his own name (you know—since she literally never used it, thereby keeping it a total secret from him). The identity of his father is another one of Asta's secrets. Instead of telling her son the truth about who his father was, Asta wrote it on the cross of lead, knowing her son can't read:
"It says, 'Crispin—son of Furnival.'"
I stared at her.
"You're Lord Furnival's son." (49.19-21)
Say what? That's a pretty big deal, and when Crispin finally learns this truth, everything he's been going through finally starts to make some sense. When he confronts John Aycliffe, Crispin uses the cross to prove his relationship to Lord Furnival:
In haste, I took out my cross of lead from my leather pouch. "It's written here," I said, holding it up. "It was my mother's. Given to me when she died. She wrote the words on it." (56.14)
As Aycliffe approaches, Crispin uses the cross as protection:
In response, I held up my hand, using the cross that rested in my palm as a shield. (56.22)
Finally Crispin agrees to give up the cross, and with it all claim to being Lord Furnival's son, so long as Aycliffe lets him and Bear leave Great Wexly unharmed. Giving up the cross is a symbolic act of giving up any ties to Lord Furnival, who is not in the running for Father of the Year anyway.
Literature is full of religious imagery, so anytime a cross shows up in a book, take note. The author is trying to tell you something.
In 1377, the Church controls everything, perhaps most especially the thoughts and minds of individuals. It is so infused in everyday life that the very times of day and days of the year are run by the church calendar. Symbols like the cross of lead are very important to the faithful.
However, in the late 14th century, new religious ideas are stirring that will culminate in the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Some people are beginning to think that symbols, physical objects, and even formal worship aren't necessary to connect with God. Bear is the voice of these individuals:
"All these things… your cross, your prayers. As God is near—and surely He always is—you need no special words or objects to approach Him." (24.44)
"Crispin, as Jesus is my witness, churches, priests—they're all unneeded. The only cross you need is the one in your heart." (24.46)
The cross, then, stands at a crossroads of sorts between the current dominant religious practices and the burgeoning resistance to the Church's primacy. If we step back and consider this within the broader scope of the book, we can see that this is also sort of true about Crispin: He stands at a crossroads of his own, struggling to make peace with his past in order to go forward anew.
That depends on whom you ask. To Crispin, the cross is something to remember his mother by, but it's also the object that confirms his relationship to a cruel and unjust father in Lord Furnival. To Lady Furnival and John Aycliffe, it's a symbol of the danger Crispin's existence poses. Bear, on the other hand, speaks of the cross in terms of its religious and monetary value.
"I know what it is. It's made of lead. Made in countless numbers during the Great Death. Never blessed, they were given to the dying as false comfort. They're as common as the leaves and just as sacred." (24.45)
Lead is not an expensive metal, like gold or silver, so the cross is made of common material, and it's made only more common by the fact that it's never been blessed, which would give it some value as a religious artifact. However, crosses like these brought comfort to the dying (whether false or not), and Crispin's cross brings him comfort, so it's not entirely without value. And of course, insofar as it proves Crispin's connection to Lord Furnival, the cross is priceless in the eyes of John Aycliffe and Lady Furnival.
Crispin uses "I" language to tell us his own story in his own words, which makes him a first-person narrator. He's also the main character, as the presence of his name in the title suggests, which makes him a central narrator. Take a gander at the following passage:
I kept asking myself if I felt different, if I was different. The answer was always yes. I was no longer nothing. I had become two people—Lord Furnival's son… and Crispin. (51.2)
This is a strong example of first person narration in which the person telling the story is also the person the story is about. Crispin's narration is so Crispin-centric that we're often inside his head, thinking about him in very specific ways. And in the end, we get to know him pretty well as he gets to know himself.
Yeah, you know we're going to reference Fresh Prince whenever possible. Check out Chapters 1 through 11 for the set-up of the whole plot. Asta's son spends the first thirteen years of his life living in the tiny village of Stromford, and then in just a few days, everything changes. His mother dies, leaving him a cross with some mysterious writing on it; the wicked steward, John Aycliffe, starts accusing him of crimes he didn't commit; the village priest turns up murdered; and before he knows it, Asta's son is running for his life. And that's when the story really starts.
Now aware that his true name is Crispin, Asta's son spends Chapters 12 through 55 trying to evade the aforementioned wicked steward, John Aycliffe. Meanwhile, John Aycliffe is determined to catch him (funny how that works). Fortunately, Crispin meets up with a strong ally in Bear, a wandering minstrel with more than a passing interest in a little thing we like to call freedom. When Aycliffe captures Bear, using him as bait to draw Crispin in, the stage is set for the climax.
Everything we know about plot analysis tells us that Crispin and John Aycliffe will eventually confront each other, and one or the other will emerge victorious. Lo and behold, in Chapter 56 these two come face to face in the chapel in Lord Furnival's palace. In true villain fashion, Aycliffe reveals answers to the final questions about Crispin's true identity. Crispin gets the better of him in a knife fight, forcing him to swear he will let Bear and Crispin go. In return, Crispin swears never to claim to be Lord Furnival's son, thus giving up any inheritance.
Crispin's outer (a.k.a. conflict with Aycliffe) and inner (a.k.a. conflict over his own identity) conflicts are both resolved in the same scene, which always a good hint that we're in climax territory.
Sharp weapons are all over the place in Medieval England. In Chapters 57 and 58, Aycliffe keeps his word, escorting Bear and Crispin to the city gates. Then he totally goes back on his word, like the villain he is, and Bear and Crispin have to fight their way out. Aycliffe ends up impaled on the swords of his own men, and Crispin leaves the cross with him, as he swore he would, thus proving he is still a good guy.
At the end of Chapter 58, Bear and Crispin head out of the city gates, free as two birds who have escaped a snare. Bear plays music and dances as they leave, laughing about how life is all around even as death is all around, too. Crispin decides he'll keep his name, and they head off to whatever new adventures are waiting for them. If characters have ever skipped happily into the sunset, it's these two.