Author: Donna Jo Napoli
Genre: Young Adult
Date Published: 2005
Blurb: Salz is a boy afflicted with cystic fibrosis — though in the Middle Ages in Saxony no one can identify it as such. Instead he is an outcast, living with his unfeeling father and superstitious brothers in a hovel outside Hameln. His grandmother has kept Salz alive by having him avoid the mead and beer commonly drunk by all and by teaching him how to clear his lungs. When the townsfolk of Hameln are affected by a mold that grows on the hops — poisoning their mead and beer — Salz is one of the few who are unaffected. The mold’s effect is hallucinogenic, and soon Hameln is in the grips of a plague of madness, followed by a plague of rats. It is only Salz who can proclaim the truth — although it might cost him his life.
I was looking forward to reading this book, because I’d already read and enjoyed Bound, Napoli’s retelling of Cinderella, set in China. The author has written a number of other retellings, including Zel (Rapunzel), Beast (Beauty and the Beast), and Crazy Jack (Jack and the Beanstalk). She’s not afraid to delve into the darker side of these stories and her eye for historical details is excellent.
Breath reads more like historical fiction than fairy tale fantasy, in that in paints a realistic picture of Hamelin in the 13th century. The focus of the story isn’t the Piper, but the narrator, twelve-year-old Salz, whose family becomes afflicted with the terrible disease ravaging Hamelin. Livestock are dying, babies are being born dead, and people are suffering from swollen limbs, fever, hallucinations, and convulsions. Salz can’t understand why this disease has gripped everyone in his entire family (except him), along with most of Hamelin’s inhabitants.
The Town Council assumes the disease is caused by rats, since Hamelin is overrun with them. When Salz mentions he has met a Piper who can charm animals, the Council sends for the musician to get rid of the rats. Spoiler alert – Since this book is faithful to the original fairy tale, it doesn’t end well (at least not for the Hameliners). When the Council refuses to pay the Piper, he uses his music to lure all the children away. Salz is left behind because his infirmities prevent him from keeping up with the other children.
How does this stack up as a Pied Piper retelling?
I found Breath to be a fascinating read, probably because I enjoy historical fiction. The author has done a great job portraying the realities of medieval life, with all its brutality and superstitions. The Pied Piper himself is kind of an enigma—although he plays a crucial role in the story, we don’t know much about him, like where he’s from or how he learned to charm animals with music. Other than the Piper’s mysterious abilities, there isn’t any other ‘magic’ in this story.
What’s really interesting is the postscript of the book, where the author explains that the disease in Breath was not caused by rats, but by a killer fungus, known as ergot, that affected the town’s grain supply. Anyone who ate bread or drank beer would have gotten ergot poisoning. The strange hallucinations that Salz’s family experienced probably occurred because ergot contains LSD. Since ergotism also causes involuntary movements and convulsions that resemble dancing, some historians believe it was cause of St. Vitus’ Dance—a disorder that affected children in medieval times.