Breath by Donna Jo Napoli

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original cover

It is quite rare to see a disease like cystic fibrosis depicted in an historical fiction novel, let alone historical fiction that takes place during the middle ages!

In Breath (Atheneum, November 2003), creative storyteller Donna Jo Napoli retells the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin with a twelve-year-old boy that has cystic fibrosis as the protagonist. The story of the Pied Piper is a disturbing story to begin with, so the reader should pick up this book with that fact in mind!

ebook cover

(Side note: the cover with bodies is much more representative of the feel of this book than the woman’s hand brushing the on the grasses or wheat or whatever that is. Don’t be deceived by the bright look of the ebook cover!)

About Breath

Salz has learned to deal with the regular bouts of coughing, and he frequently spends time standing on his head so his lungs can clear. His weakened body means that he regularly helps with women’s work, rather than helping his farming brothers in the fields. But his loving grandmother has nurtured him and guarded him from his father’s cruelty ever since his mother died, and so he has survived through the difficult medieval era in which he lives.

This caring relationship with his grandmother means he learns the natural medicine that she offers to others in the village, and he is invited to join in her “coven,” which she insists is a Papist coven, following Christianity. It is in truth a mix of a little Christian tradition with pagan practices and medieval superstition. The coven even has a midnight drug-induced orgy at one point, which seemed totally out of place and bizarre given the supposed Christianity of the coven as grandmother frequently declares to anyone who questions it’s purposes. (I also mention this is as a content warning: the two pages seemed completely unnecessary, and I wished it had not been included.) Throughout the book, Salz has to come to terms with this contradiction between the Christian principles and logic he learns during his studies with the learned town priest and the traditional rituals and superstitions practiced by his grandmother and even their small village priest.

Throughout the novel, though, problems come to Hameln town. First, the livestock get sick, with udders and other body parts turning gangrenous and falling off. This eventually spreads to those living in the village. Salz and his family, along with some other farmers outside of town, are spared, but why? With Salz’s skill as a ratter, he is soon called up to help rid the village of the many rats, but this crisis seems to spread out of control. Eventually, the strange madness comes to his family too, and it is Salz who is able to figure out why, but his realization is much too late to help his village.

Enter: The Pied Piper

It was easy to forget that Breath was to be about the Pied Piper. He only comes in at the very beginning and at the very end. First, Salz is drawn to this wanderer’s piping, which the piper calls “animal music,” and animals certainly do follow his piping. With this “animal music,” we get the magic that makes this a fantasy rather than a full historical fiction novel. Even the “Papist coven” which steered toward pagan ritual did not have any true magic, but this piper from afar had the “actual” magic that drew the animals away.

Salz was fascinated by this man in bright clothes (the definition of “pied”) who had traveled through. When the plague and rat problem is truly out of control, Salz is the one to suggest calling the piper back to their village to rid the town of the rats, which they all believe has caused the madness in town. As in the traditional story, the townspeople cheat the piper out of his pay after he does rid the house of rats, which gives them all a horrible consequence.

About the History

For me, one of the most fascinating points upon reading this book was the question of what truly happened to the children of Hamelin? I’ve heard of the pied piper, but it had seemed to just be a story to me, one from the Brothers’ Grimm. But, according to Wikipedia, something must have happened to the local children. I really liked this article from the BBC explaining theories. In multiple medieval sources, there is reference to the 26 of June 1284 as the day on which 130 children from in Hamelin either “left” or “vanished,” or were “stolen” or “swept away” after following a pied piper or musician to a place or hill called Calvary or Koppen. Art in the town (some no longer remaining but described in Medieval manuscripts) also showed the piper leading children out of town. Creepy, right?

Some explanations are

  • the children were killed in a landslide or sinkhole (this seems most plausible to me, since I did once hear about a similar modern-day situation, the Aberfan disaster)
  • the youth were led out of town for a planned, controlled migration to Eastern Europe (why not just say that?)
  • the children were led on a 13th Century children’s crusade to the Holy Land (children’s crusade was earlier in the century)
  • the children died of the Black Plague (wrong years, and why is a specific date given, then)
  • the children were carried off by a dancing mania that led them to dance themselves to death (how could this really happen? And all were led off on the same day?)
  • the children were massacre in a pagan activity (26 of June is a midsummer festival day)
  • the children were taken to local monasteries (why would they be?)

At any rate, Napoli’s tale about a fungus-induced plague along with a rat-plague felt like it could have been a plausible one, even thought the “magical” pied piper was still unrealistic fantasy. Overall, though, it leaves me wondering: what could have really happened to the children all those years ago?

It’s creepy any way you think about it.

Ending Thoughts on Breath

The book Breath includes gruesome details. There are the descriptions of animals dying. There are descriptions of violence. And there are descriptions of the “crazy” people’s actions: some are physically violent, but others strip naked, dance, and do sexual acts in the streets. And, of course, there is the shocking concept of the entire town of children being whisked away while the parents sit in hallucinogenic confusion, their body parts falling off due to ergot poisoning. I was shocked to see Breath labeled as a book for young adults on Amazon (grades 7-9). I’d classify it as 16+.

Breath is a fascinating look at characters and a time unfamiliar to me: shocking, clever, and carefully plotted. I don’t think I’ll forget it. But it was not a pleasant read, or full of delight. There is a place for such a book in my reading life, but it won’t remain a favorite to revisit, that’s for sure. I’m conflicted on whether or not I should even recommend it.

Reviewed on November 28, 2023

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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