Monday 8 February 2016

Big John's Secret by Eleanore M. Jewett

Author:  Eleanore M. Jewett

Illustrator:  Gino d'Achille (cover)

Era:  1215-18 A.D.

Published: 1962

Award:  None known

Age Range:  9 years old and up

Review:  ★★★★☆

Big John lives with Old Marm, a woman who rescued him from his parents' castle when it was raided and siezed.  He works as a villein, but John knows that his family was once nobility, yet how will he be able to enact revenge on the enemy who stole his birthright and find his missing father? When Sir Alwynn accepts him as a page, John is overjoyed.  There is talk of his father last being seen in the Holy Land and Alwynn, a Knight of St. John, is preparing to leave on the Fifth Crusade.  But John's natural gentleness and empathy run contrary to his desire for revenge and his intentions of becoming a knight.  When he finds himself captured by the enemy, all his plans appear hopeless.  Finally, an encounter with Saint Francis of Assisi allows him to see the value of compassion and generosity, but the question still remains ...... Will John be reunited with his father and finally wreak the revenge that he has so earnestly desired?

Genre:  Historical Fiction

Historical Background:  In 1199, with the death of King Richard I, his brother John became king of England.  John began fiscal reforms to support his wars, as the royal coffers had been drained by Richard during the Crusades, but his short-sighted handling of the British nobles caused nothing but enmity and strife, and in 1215 he was forced to sign the Magna Carta peace treaty with the nobles.  In the story, John's father had run afoul of King John which lead to the seizing of his estates by another baron.

The Fifth Crusade was initially organized by Pope Innocent III, and preparations were taken over by his successor, Pope Honorius III.  When a six year truce ended in 1217, the crusade was launched, targeting Egypt as a route into Jerusalem.  The battle at Acre, Egypt on December 24, 1217, is documented as history by Jewett, but I could not find any information about it on the internet.  However, since she received a master's degree in comparative literature from Columbia University and had an avid interest in medieval times, I would surmise that Jewett's information is indeed accurate.

The Knights of St. John, of which Sir Alwynn is one, originated circa 1023, its mission to assist poor, sick or injured pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land.  After the First Crusade, it became a military, religious order, but still mostly dealt with service to the sick, and it was only in 1200 that there is a first mention of military service.  The name is still in service today, in the familiar form of St. John's Ambulance Brigade.        


  • Cambridgeshire, England, 1215-1217
  • Acre, Egypt, 1217
  • Jerusalem, 1218
  • Damietta, Egypt, 1218


Big John:  A twelve-year-old boy, much bigger than his age and villein to Sir Eustace.

Old Marm:  Big John's self-appointed guardian after the death of his parents.

Sir Eustace:  Lord of the manor and the man for whom John works

Lord Walter Warenne:  a knight

Reynold: a page who is part of Lord Warenne's company, and John's friend

Tostig:  a page at Warenne who is initially hostile to John

Sir Alwynn:  a Knight of St. John, and John's benefactor

Nur-Aslan: a weathly Saracen

Yusuf:  the son of Nur-Aslan

Historical Characters:

Francis of Assisi:  a friar, devout in his Catholic faith, who attempted to convert the Sultan Melek-al-Kamel (al-Kamil) to Christianity.  While he did not succeed, the Franciscan order has been present in the Holy Land since that time (1217).

Sultan Melek-al-Kamel: the fourth Ayyubid sultan of Egypt.  While calling for Christian heads during the war, he also was known to show great compassion and mercy.

Lord Ranulf, Earl of Chester:  based on the figure of Ranulf de Blondeville, 6th Earl of Chester

Damietta (Fifth Crusade) {1849}
Henri Delaborde
source Wikimedia Commons


What does the central character want?

  • John wants to find his father who is missing and possibly dead. He also wants revenge against the baron who burned his father's estate and helped send him into exile.  He believes becoming a knight will bring him his desires.

What keeps him from getting what he wants?

  • John's goodness and empathy towards people appear to work against his desire of becoming a knight, and in his search for his father.  In reality, it is John's own self who does not recognize the power hidden in these natural traits.

How does John finally get what he wants?

  • His experience with Saint Francis helps him recognize the value of true generosity and kindness, so he can then begin to appreciate these natural qualities within himself and finally, in forgiving his father's enemies, he is set free to pursue a vocation that is both honourable and natural, a vocation for which he is well-suited.

Frisian crusaders confront the tower of Damietta, Egypt
source Wikipedia

  • Man vs. Society  John place in society is confused and tenuous.  He must live and be treated as a villein, then page, yet there are questions of his parentage.  How will he recover the prestige he has lost and regain his rightful place in society?
  • Man vs. Himself  John is conflicted by his generous actions towards Yusuf.  He sees himself as a knight who should be victorious over his enemies, yet he shows the boy mercy.  This conflict is a mirror of his conflict within himself with regard to his father's enemies.  Do they deserve death or mercy?  His struggle also impedes him from recognizing his true calling.          

  • Love
  • Revenge
  • War
  • Injustice
  • Identity
  • Loyalty
  • Perseverance
  • Friendship
  • Education
  • Bravery
  • Forgiveness
  • Family

Born in 1890 and the only child of her parents, Eleanore Myers Jewett developed a vivid imagination and a love of reading.  While doing a master's degree in comparative literature at Columbia University, she continued her fascination with the medieval time period and in her books, the setting is brought vividly to life.  As a wife of a physician, she lived with him and their two daughters in upstate New York until her death in 1967.

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  1. I think my son would dig this -- I'll have to see if the library has it!

    1. I think that he'd love it. John is definitely big and strong and all boy, but I love how the values of kindness and empathy are emphasized as positive traits. I hope that you can track it down!