MG Review: Will Sparrow’s Road by Karen Cushman

Review from Jill Haugh

Will Sparrow’s Road

Karen Cushman
Clarion Books, 2012
Having just recently devoured in one glorious gluttonous frenzy every novel MG author and Newbury Medalist Karen Cushman has ever written, I was delighted with the opportunity to review her latest book, Will Sparrow’s Road (Clarion, 2012).  While similar in scope to her other books, Will Sparrow is most notably different because it is the first time Cushman has featured a boy as her main character.

Here is the blurb from the inside jacket-cover:Will Sparrow's Road

Will Sparrow, liar and thief, is running away–from the father who sold him for beer, from the innkeeper who threatened to sell him as a chimney sweep, from his whole sorry life. Barefoot and penniless, without family, friends, or boots, Will is determined to avoid capture and, of course, to find something to eat.
Some of the travelers he meets on the road have a kind word for him and a promise of better things to come, such as coins and juicy beef ribs. Eager to go along, Will repeatedly finds himself tricked by older and wiser tricksters. Each time, he resolves afresh to trust no one and care for no one. But luckily for Will, he can’t keep his guard up forever.
The lively goings-on behind the scenes of Elizabethan market fairs provide a colorful, earthy backdrop for Karen Cushman’s wise and funny story of a runaway who finally, and unexpectedly, stops running.

Set in 1599 “somewhere in England” and delightfully sprinkled with just enough Elizabethan language for flavoring, readers travel along with fugitive Will Sparrow as he sets off on his adventure to find his freedom.  The reality of being young and on one’s own in the wilds of England becomes quickly apparent.  Hunger is Will’s greatest preoccupation and his constant companion, and as readers we come to realize: thieves are made and not born.  Hunger is a constant theme in this book:  hunger for real sustenance; hunger for belonging; hunger for an identity; and Will’s need to belong and his ever-growling belly do not subside even when he is taken in by a travelling side-show of “Oddities and Prodigies”. 

Cushman’s treatment of these “oddities” is masterful.  They are multi-faceted individuals with real issues who are most definitely not what they seem.  Who better to teach us the lesson “appearances are deceiving” than this band of rag-tag misfits and “freaks”?    

There is “kind” Mr. Tidball who runs the side-show, a man Will wants desperately to trust but cannot. Grace, touted as being “half wild-cat and half-human”, is a character based on a real Elizabethan woman who suffered from Hypertrichosis, a disease where hair grows profusely all over the body and face.  Feisty Grace fights for her right to be called a name of her own making—rather than “Grimalkin” and longs for a normal life, though she is quite literally owned by the duplicitous Mr. Tidball.  Fitzgeoffrey is a foul-mouthed, cantankerous dwarf who despite his constant brawling, (or maybe because of it) ends up being a bigger man than most.  Benjamin, a blind Latin-wielding juggler serves as mentor for our young hero and though sightless, sees more than most.  He leads by example and quietly instructs Will to “juggle life” and “suum cuique pulchritudine: To each his own beauty”, a line which echoes the real understated theme of this book.

At the heart of Will’s quest is the theme of “fate versus free-will”, an idea which emerged in Elizabethan society at the height of the Renaissance and permeates this tale.  Are we merely pawns in Fate’s game, unable to choose our own lot in life or do we have the free will to create our own destiny, and thus find our true self?  Indeed, even the name Cushman has chosen for her main character conveys the answer we seek and we champion his efforts to become “Free Will.”

Some reviewers (and even Amazon’s holy blurb) tout this book as being “funny”—though I would say “Certes, Nay.  Tis not.”  Cushman’s characters have a wry wit to them, and the setting amongst travelling Elizabethan market fairs carries with it a certain frolicking tom-foolery, but to me, “Will Sparrow’s Road” is a story of personal discovery and the choices one makes in creating one’s own destiny.

While there may persist the urge to compare Will Sparrow’s Road with the other bright stars in Cushaman’s pantheon, I shall refrain.  While some stars may indeed appear to be brighter than others, they are all suns in their own right and deserve to be treated thusly. 

Jill Haugh

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