I am not sure I have the words to adequately describe how much I've loved this book and still love this book. My 4th grade teacher started reading this to our class back in '78 or so. About two chapters in I couldn't stand his slow pace anymore, got the book out of the library and plowed through it in a day or two. I have reread this book so many times I have long lost count and even as an adult I reread it every few years. My battered '83 copy, without a spine and held together by yellowing scotch tape, now sits on my bookshelf in California, half a world away from where I first read it. This one goes with me whenever I move.
The books tells the story of how Dolf, a twentieth century boy, gets stranded in a children's crusade in the 13th century and travels with the crusade from Germany, over the Alps, to Italy. Along the way he transforms the crusade from a ragtag band of rabble, in which the smallest and weakest children perish, into a well organized troupe that takes care of their own. He battles epidemic outbreaks of disease, bandits, nature, accusations of heresy, superstition and the medieval mindset. The author, one of my personal holy trinity of 70's Dutch children's lit (Thea Beckman, Jan Terlouw and Tonke Dragt) does an excellent job describing the grueling nature of the journey, the good and the bad, providing a touching experience for the reader, without having Dolf wallow in angst and agony every other page.
When netgalley offered the English translation, I jumped on it. It was about time for another reread anyway. It was a little weird that many of the names had been changed. Rudolf Wega from Amstelveen is now Rudolf Hefting from Amsterdam, Mariecke is Maria, Dom Johannes Dom Augustus etc. But okay, pandering to the English inability to deal with foreign names, I can live with that.
What was more disturbing is that the story seemed a little flat... Was I finally too old for this story? Did I know it too well? Then I noticed some sentence structures were a bit clunky. ('All that they had so far suffered would pale beside the horrors that awaited them in the mountains' and 'My friend here is rather fond of seeing off bears'). Maybe it needed some more editing from a native English speaker?
Then, when Mariecke/Maria returns from gathering herbs with a bunch of 'henchmen' and I was wondering when she had become a villain needing henchmen, I decided to get out the original.
Well, no wonder the story felt a bit flat....
Here is a passage that describes Dolf coming into the camp on the evening after the first day the 7000 children had to cross a mountain pass:
For indeed, he now felt responsible for the children's crusade. For every accident, for every death he blamed himself. And today that burden had proved heavy. Through the tortuous miles of the gorge he had walked with but the one thought that he must get them all through safely. But he had failed. Right in front of his eyes he had seen a child fall into the stream and be carried away by the torrent. For two hours he had been frantically digging into the rock-slide with nothing but a stick and his bare hands – only to find one dead child. He had carried on his back children who had fallen down and when they were rested set them on their feet and picked up another. Had they all reached the end of the gorge safely? He could not tell. Dolf knew that Leonardo, like himself, was not sleeping.
Now the same passage in the original, translated by me (not a native English speaker, so cut me some slack).
Because it had come to this: he felt completely responsible for the children's crusade. Every accident, every death, he held himself accountable for. And today he'd had his share. All the difficult miles through the gorge he had had but one thought: 'I have to get all of them them through this safely.' But he had failed. Right before his eyes he had seen a child fall into the raging creek, swept away by the torrent to get smashed onto a rock in the riverbed. He had spent two hours frantically digging into a rock-slide with nothing but a stick and his bare hands, only to finally uncover a dead child. How many others were still buried, he could not guess, he only knew he'd lost them. He had helped crying children clamber over rocks and he had seen the ox die. He had sucked out a snake bite, uncertain if the snake had been venomous. And where was that little guy now? He had carried children on his back that had fallen down. He had put them down and picked up others. Had they all made it to the end of the gorge? Hadn't they accidentally left one behind? He had not been able to keep up with them all. Fifty, maybe a hundred children he knew by name and face. The thousands of others were just children, entrusted to his care. He could not tell them apart, there were too many of them.
The chaos in the camp shocked him. Night was threatening. The sky was still clouded, even if it had stopped raining and it was black as pitch. The still valley was rustling with hidden life, with stealthy dangers. A large fire would keep predators at bay, but the fires were going out. The tired wood gatherers had only gathered enough to cook dinner on. Packs of wolves, attracted to the smell of cooked meat and gnawed bones were silently stalking the perimeter of the camp. Dolf could see their eyes light up when they came close. Staggering through the camp he heard a child scream, but before he had reached the spot, silence had set back in. What had happened?
Occasionally, an arrow shot through the air, loosened by one of the orderlies. One time, Dolf heard the whining flight of an animal that had been shot. But there weren't enough orderlies, they fell asleep or nobody came to relieve them. Exhaustion and despair were sapping Dolf's strength. He had put Maria/Mariecke and a number of small children safely in the middle of the group, near the tent. And he knew that Leonardo was not sleeping either, but was doing his utmost to keep the camp safe, just like he was.
Somebody do a new translation of this book please, so I can stop crying.
So, the 5 stars are for the Dutch original. I have no words, or stars, for the English translation. I saw that the this edition still averages between 4 and 5 stars from other reviewers on goodreads, though, which shows you that a good story is pretty much indestructible, even when butchered in the translation. But, damn, it hurts.