Friday, May 21, 2010

Book Review: The Book of the Maidservant by Rebecca Barnhouse (Random House, 2009)

This is the first but definitely not the last novel by Rebecca Barnhouse, a new talent in historical fiction for young people. A professor of English at Youngstown State University, Barnhouse specializes in medieval literature and young adult literature, and has even written two reference books about children's and young adult literature set in the Middle Ages. With these qualifications, we would expect good things from her own novel, and indeed, she delivers a terrific story for ages 10-14.

Told in the first person in an earthy style reminiscent of Karen Cushman's books set in the Middle Ages, the novel introduces us to Johanna, a lowly serving girl to Dame Margery Kempe, a real historical figure and medieval holy woman who wrote what is widely considered to be the first autobiography in English. Johanna's life as a servant in Dame Margery's household is not easy, but Cook and little Cicilly have become like a second family to her. When Dame Margery declares that God has told her to go on a pilgrimage from England to Rome, Johanna is the maidservant selected to accompany her. Johanna is flabbergasted. "Rome! It's so far away, I can't imagine it," she says.

A modern reader might think, "how fun, she gets to go on a big trip!" But travel in medieval times was no walk in the park--they travel on foot, with Johanna carrying tools for starting a fire, their cooking pot, needles, thread, "pigs' bladders for carrying drinking water," and other necessities. They soon fall in with a motley group of travelers, including several students, an old man and his young wife, a merchant, and a priest, all coming together for protection from brigands on the road. Barnhouse captures all the sordid and colorful details of life on a medieval pilgrimage, where our travelers are forced to sleep where they can, not always being near an inn to stop for the night, and Johanna is forced to serve not only her difficult mistress, but the others in their party as well, fetching water, washing clothes and cooking after having walked all day to the point of exhaustion. The other travelers quickly tire of Dame Margery's emotional outbursts and preaching to them of their sins, and vote to leave her on the road. Johanna, however, must continue with the other travelers, making an arduous journey over the Alps into Italy. When Johanna is separated from the rest of her party, she must make her way in Italy all alone. Will she ever return to England or will she find a home in Italy?

Highly recommended for readers interested in medieval times, this book offers us a strong and lively heroine who has to stand on her own in a challenging situation. I look forward to Barnhouse's next books, which will be a retelling of the Beowulf legend.

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