Crusade by Elizabeth Laird

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Crusade by Elizabeth Laird

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A story of two boys from different backgrounds discovering they are more alike than they thought forms a deceptively simple plot for this beautifully researched historical epic and topical discussion of the true nature of holy war and just cause. As ever, Laird fails to put the tiniest foot wrong. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Pan Australia
ISBN: 978-0330443111

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Salim is a young merchant's son in the port of Acre, newly recaptured from the Franks by Saladin. His is an uneventful life, spent playing, sitting in the sun, and using his lameness as an excuse to avoid work. But uncomfortable rumours about another infidel crusade are beginning to surface, the imams are preaching jihad, and Salim's father apprentices him off to a Jewish doctor to keep him out of harm's way. Doctor Musa is a kindly man and a highly skilled physician, but he doesn't think a great deal of Salim's dreams of battle glory. On their way to Jerusalem, to avoid the coming siege, Doctor Musa is commandeered to serve Saladin himself and so Salim has a first-hand view of the siege and its battles. He is outside the walls of Acre while his family are suffering inside.

Adam is an English serf, newly orphaned. His mother died unconfessed and Adam believes if he can get to Jerusalem and collect some of its holy dust he will save her soul from perdition. So when the priests begin preaching holy war, Adam, suffused with ardour to wrest the Holy Land from savages, takes the cross. The journey is dangerous, the crusaders squabble amongst themselves, and as they wait for King Richard, the siege falters as the besiegers starve. Adam comes to wonder if God really does want them there, creating murderous mayhem. Still worse, the Jewish and Muslim people he meets don't appear to be monsters at all.

Oh, I loved Crusade. As ever, Laird doesn't put a foot wrong. This is a simple story of two young boys from different cultures who are thrown together by events and who discover, to their surprise, they are more alike than they had ever thought possible. It's not as though it hasn't been done before. It's just that Laird does it with such panache. She keeps it simple; she creates her characters and lets them tell their stories. There aren't any bells and whistles. There is just the clear ring of integrity and truth. Laird's people and places come alive in her pages, inhabiting a believable world as recognisable as the one outside your front door.

Of course, the background of the Third Crusade also has topical resonance - everything Laird writes has topical resonance - and the ideas of jihad and just cause are explored and opened up in Crusade in a way that is both gentle and forceful. It is never too early to confront your prejudices and children are bold. They will enjoy this aspect of the book despite sometimes shocking scenes. Richard the Lionheart's massacre of the survivors of the Acre siege upset even me, and I was already aware it happened. I think children are more aware than adults that in war it's not as simple as our side are the goodies and their side are the baddies and Crusade will certainly flesh out their understanding on this point.

Crusade is a classy, classy novel from a classy, classy writer. I love this woman. The book has made it onto the Education Secretary's top books for boys list - sheesh, get boys reading by all means, but can't this administration keep its fingers out of anyone's pie? - but it's certainly not just for boys. There's something in it for everyone, including the grown ups, and it's one of those rare books that challenges children to do some independent thinking without coming anywhere near being pious or worthy. At a time when even our leaders are promulgating the dangerous notion of the other, to find someone talking about the familiar makes for some wonderfully uplifting reading.

My thanks to the good people at Macmillan for sending the book.

If they enjoyed Crusade, they might also like Kevin Crossley-Holland's Gatty's Tale which has a wonderfully strong female character.

Bookinterviews.jpg Elizabeth Laird was kind enough to be interviewed by Bookbag.

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