A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
The Windeby Mystery and its imaginary characters are based on a real-life discovery of a child's body from the first century A.D., well preserved in a peat bog in Northern Germany. There's plenty of detail about the time and place, with references to archeology, as well as the Roman historian Tacitus and what he had to say about the people who lived there at the time. Also the fact that as better tools emerge for studying discoveries like the Windeby Child, new facts also emerge and contradict everything that's "known" on the subject. History, science, and imagination blend, often uneasily, as characters spring into being based on, often, the most wispy of known facts, and the result serves as an intriguing case study of the author's creative process and storytelling struggles.
Archeology teaches us about the lives of people who were here before us.
Positive Role Models
Estrild is inspired by her uncle, a brave warrior who died in battle when he stopped to help a wounded friend. She is bold, independent-minded, and dreams of a future that isn't nonstop drudgery; her more downtrodden mom tries in vain to protect her. Varick struggles with a physical disability and the constant effort to survive as an orphan, but has an inquiring mind and a kind heart, which come to the fore as he helps others in distress. Enslaving people is a normal practice in their tribe, as conquered people are enslaved; a rich man has many enslaved workers, while another, whose daughters would like to have the enclaved doing their work, says he doesn't want the extra mouths to feed.
Both characters are members of an Iron Age tribe in what is now Germany, in which gender roles are traditional and rigid. One is a girl who aspires to a non-stereotypical gender role, which gets her killed, and the other is a boy whose orphan status and physical deformities restrict his options and ultimately cause his death, but who also shows unusual empathy, helpfulness, and problem-solving skills.
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Violence & Scariness
Lots of things, intended or not, can get you killed in these stories. Foreshadowing the fates of some characters, there are repeated references to the sacrificial killing of animals, especially lambs, as one character looks at frolicking lambs and wonders if they know they're going to be slaughtered, while another vivid scene describes them bound and crying for their mothers before their necks are stretched and slashed, and they scream in anguish. Also screaming, human mothers as their children are taken to be killed. Runaway slaves are killed by being drowned in a bog. The fact that both imaginative stories end with a body of a child dead before their time gives an inescapable doominess to the narrative that no amount of gorgeous illustration or lively description can overcome. In one version of the narrative, a teen girl is killed for wanting to be a warrior like her late uncle who died in battle; her feelings as she's blindfolded and dragged off to be drowned in the bog are described at length. In the other, a man is seen as remarkable because he allowed his disabled infant to live rather than throwing him in his mother's grave. One character studies the bones of dead animals, which helps him help others. A small child is seen torturing a half-dead mouse.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Some discussion of how infidelity is punished by death, and how a woman in the village suffered this fate in the past.
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Characters mention going out to piss as an explanation for being absent.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Drunken brawls, puking, and mayhem are part of the seasonal celebrations -- for men. A character who's trying to help an injured man makes the man drink cider till he passes out so the healer can do something painful but helpful.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Windeby Puzzle is Newbery Award-winning author Lois Lowry's (Number the Stars, The Giver) imaginative evocation of two teens who may have lived in the Iron Age before meeting an untimely death -- as evidenced by a well-preserved body from the first century A.D., found in 1952 in a German peat bog. There's a lot of factual information about ancient bodies preserved in peat bogs, and what we can learn from studying them. In this case, the author takes a deep dive into what's known about the person who came to be known as the Windeby Child, which isn't much. She draws heavily on the Roman historian Tacitus and what he had to say about the Germanic tribes of his day. And from such fragments weaves short, dramatic narratives about two different characters, trying to bring to life young people and what might have brought them to death in a bog, long before their time. Doomed as the characters are from the outset, the narrative is often horrifically violent, as sacrificial lambs cry for their mothers before their throats are slashed, a terrified young girl is dragged to death by drowning, and flickers of hope and joy exist mainly to be dashed. Warriors engage in ugly, puking drunken revelry as part of village celebrations, and tribal bands regularly fight and enslave one another. As an exercise in the writer's craft and a look at archeology, it's a fascinating study. As a story, it may be too dark, bleak, and violent for sensitive readers, despite Jonathan Stroh's gorgeous illustrations of Estrid, Varick, an old owl, and the marshy landscape they live in.
Is It Any Good?
Newbery Award winner Lois Lowry's history-based fictional tale of an ancient bog body and its owner's brief, mysterious life is dark and violent, raising happy possibilities only to dash them. More about the writer's creative process and the craft of storytelling than an engaging portrait of long-ago teens, The Windeby Puzzle never escapes a sense of horror and brutality, as doomed lambs cry for their moms before their necks are slashed, and young humans fare little better.
The Windeby Mystery and its imaginary child characters start out with the knowledge that things will end very badly for its protagonists, and there's a no-good-deed-goes-unpunished vibe throughout, in a not entirely successful effort to make the characters engaging (by 21st century standards) before they meet their doom. Underlying all this is the author's fascination with the mysterious discovery of a child in a bog, and a writer's insatiable curiosity of how the child got there, and why.
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