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Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

8: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly #Newbery100

2022 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Newbery Medal. In honor of this momentous event, I launched a project to read through each award-winner, starting with some background on the award and with commentary on the first medal winner: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Today I take up the 1929 recipient: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly.





Winner: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly (Macmillan)

Honor Books:

Pigtail of Ah Lee Ben Loo by John Bennett (Longmans)

Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág (Coward)

The Boy Who Was by Grace Hallock (Dutton)

Clearing Weather by Cornelia Meigs (Little, Brown)

Runaway Papoose by Grace Moon (Doubleday)

Tod of the Fens by Elinor Whitney (Macmillan)




Members of the 1929 Newbery Medal Selection Committee: Chair Carrie E Scott, Eva G. Leslie, Mary Frances Cox, Helen M. Reynolds, Elisabeth Knapp, Ruth Theobald, Mary Wilkinson.

In 1919, the world was still reeling from the catastrophes of World War I, and the nation of Poland was shaking off its feathers having been reborn from the ashes of war. Centuries before, Poland had been a thriving and powerful country, but for decades it had been the victim of ongoing power struggles in Europe and Asia. Sitting as it does between Germany and various Russian territories, its restoration in 1918 was doomed to be short-lived as its population was decimated by the Holocaust, and it became a communist outpost (or Satellite State) of the Soviet Union following WWII. In those tenuous years between the wars, Poland managed to preserve and even strengthen its national spirit and culture, much of which was retained as Polish immigrants came to the United States. It was in this period that Eric P. Kelly came to Poland, joining them in "building Poland into a very miracle of a nation" as he called it in an autobiographical note for The Horn Book collection. It was also during this time that he wrote The Trumpeter of Krakow, a story that celebrates the bravery and beauty of the Polish people despite all odds.


The Trumpeter of Krakow draws upon the legends surrounding the Krakow trumpeters, their ancient oath serving as the book's inscription:

I swear on my honor as a Pole, as a servant of the King of the Polish people, that I will faithfully and unto the death, if there be need, sound upon the trumpet the Heynal in honor of Our Lady each hour in the tower of the church which bears Her Name.

The story opens in 1241 as "rumors began to travel along the highroad from Kiev in the land of Rus that the Tartars of the East were again upon the march." This short, introductory piece tells of the constant threat from Tartar (or Mongol) invasion and of the young trumpeter who sounded the alarm from the tower as invading forces arrived. The legend, as Kelly tells it, describes a "Tartar below crouched to his bow," whose deadly aim silences the trumpeter before he finishes the song, which is why the trumpeters ever since have played the Heynal without its final notes.


The rest of the book is a fictionalized account of 15th-century Krakow as it moves from the "dark" ages into the scientific era. The story follows young Joseph Charnetski and his family as they flee their home in the Ukraine ahead of rampaging Tartars. They make their way to Krakow, where it quickly becomes clear they are being pursued by nefarious forces, though Joseph does not understand why. They change their name, go into hiding, and even begin working as trumpeters in the Church of Our Lady, playing the broken Heynal on the hour. But their new home is in the same building as an alchemist and an evil student who has taken control of the goodnatured alchemist. And soon, they all discover the reason the Charnetskis are being sought: Joseph's father has the Great Tarnov Crystal, so powerful as to be a danger in the wrong hands. Full of suspense and adventure, The Trumpeter of Krakow concludes with Joseph using the legend of the broken note of the Heynal to sound an alarm and thus, save Krakow from treachery and a devastating fire.


Many contemporary readers have remarked on how descriptive Kelly is, bringing this medieval village to life in ways that somehow also shine a light on the Poland of the 20th century. Young readers would undoubtedly find much of the description dull, and as the story progresses in a halting fashion, this title would never be an easy one to recommend. Reading it with an eye toward othering, however, makes its shortcomings even more clear. Kelly aligns his narrative with a European Christian mentality throughout, and the descriptions of the Tartars are troubling:

The Tartars came through the world like a horde of wild beasts. They left not one thing alive nor one green blade of wheat standing. They were short, dark men of shaggy beards and long hair twisted into little braids

and the bad guy, alternately known as Stefan Ostrovski or Peter the Button Face or Bogdan the Terrible is seen to be evil from their first encounter:

It was the face, however, that betrayed the soul beneath. It was a dark, oval, wicked face -- the eyes were greenish and narrow and the eyebrow line above them ran straight across the bridge of the nose, giving the effect of a monkey rather than a man. One cheek was marked with a buttonlike scar, the scar of the button plague that is so common in the lands east of the Volga, or even the Dnieper, and marks the bearer as a Tartar of a Cossack or a Mongol. . . . not one feature of the man's countenance was Polish.

Kelly plays on the idea that one's face could betray one's character throughout this book, a problematic enough notion on its own. That these pillaging Tartars are later described "Facing the east as the rising sun had crept over Wawel Hill, they had chanted their morning prayer of praise to the great Allah" makes their characterization particularly harmful, especially for today's Muslim readers. The librarians making the Newbery selection at the time may have seen their choice as an embrace of a global perspective, opening wide the doors of the world to children in the United States. Still others, familiar with the growing population of Polish immigrants in the country, might have been pleased to offer them a story reflective of their own culture. Despite these good intentions, the "foreignness" of this book does nothing to diminish its approval of the white Christian mores of the day, and this othering, intentional or not, should be interrogated.


Though it is not one I would recommend for any collection, The Trumpeter of Krakow remains intriguing for the ways it, perhaps unwittingly, contributed to the international conversation in the 1920s. Perhaps a little more historical context would help. Russia entered WWI as an ally of the United States (and England and France), but after the 1917 (or Bolshevik) Revolution, they pulled out of the conflict, established peace with Germany and a Communist government, effectively making Russia an enemy of the United States. Also in 1919, the National Booksellers Association annual meeting was held with strong exhortations toward the need for books that will meet the demands of the New World Order. According to a newspaper account, the Honorable David J. O'Connell "called upon booksellers to use their great influence as a means of combatting Bolshevism" and,

spoke of the important problems with which Congress will be confronted, not the least of which will be the elimination of the discordant elements that have appeared in America. As Theodore Roosevelt said, there is no room in this country for fifty-fifty Americans.

In 1922, the Newbery Medal is established, and a few years later, this book is chosen for its distinguished contribution to children's literature. Could it be argued this book is part of that "great influence," helping young readers to see the Russian perspective as dark and evil? What about those fifty-fifty Americans?


I imagine those young readers with Polish parents reading of "the struggle for mastery between Muscovy and Poland" and of "Ivan himself, chief power among the Muscovites, son of that blind one. He has the ambition to unite all lands thereabouts under himself," and I wonder: would they be able to see that narrative as ancient history? Or would they, in their new country, hear the calls against the communist empire and see themselves as fighting the same battle as that first brave trumpeter who realized before his death that "he was part of the glorious company . . . fighting for all Christendom against brutal and savage invaders." The book tugs intensely at national pride, and I wonder which patriotism would flare most fiercely: for the distant Poland of the past or for the United States of their present?


I'm not sure where to put these connections. I don't think the librarians choosing this title saw themselves as engaging in political propaganda. But when they read this book, they saw in it things they wanted to champion to young readers. They recognized themselves in it, and they recognized the other, and they affixed their seal of approval upon it. And all these years later, we're still putting it on our shelves because of that.

The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to send me a message. I promise a reply. 

 

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