The Book of the Maidservant, by Rebecca Barnhouse

The Book of the Maidservant, by Rebecca Barnhouse (Random House, 2009, middle grade/young adult, 224 pp), is a tale of a pilgrimage from England to Rome in the fifteenth-century, and the girl who had to scrub the pots all the way there.

Johanna is the serving girl of Dame Margery Kempe, a woman of extraordinarily vocal and incessant piety. Dame Margery's tender feelings for the sufferings of Christ, which move her to tears at every turn, don't translate into tenderness for Johanna, who never gets so much as a kind word.

So when Dame Margery sets off on a pilgrimage to Rome, taking Johanna along to wait on her, Johanna doesn't expect it to be fun. But it is worse than she had imagined--not only does she have to tend to her ungrateful mistress, but the entire company with whom she is journeying expect her to work for all of them. So her days are spend trudging through Europe, her evenings cooking and washing and mending...

The only bright spark is the young student, John Mouse, who fills her mind like no-one she has ever met before. But abandoned outside Rome by Dame Margery and separated from the rest of the rag tag band of travellers, she's not at all sure she'll ever see him again. Let alone get back to England.

It's a good story, although Johanna's tribulations become, perhaps, a bit repetitive. It's the sort of historical fiction for kids that nicely shows what life would have been like "back then," without attempting archaism of language or shining too glaring a spotlight on the unfamiliar. And it's a sub-genre of historical fiction that I like lots--the sort that takes a real person, who is only briefly mentioned in history, and brings her to life.

Dame Margery Kempe, incidentally, was real, as was her servant Johanna, and although Barnhouse tinkered a bit with the sequence of events, she sticks closely to the story that Dame Margery actually told of her pilgrimage (the Book of Margery Kempe is the first autobiography written in English).

Some kids might ask for more Action than this book provides--it focuses on the interactions of the travellers, and Johanna's particular situation, so there aren't any Epic Medievally bits (although there are some tense moments). But for kids who like historical fiction that's character driven (such as The Midwife's Apprentice, by Karen Cushman), this one would be a good choice.

A note on the age level--this is marketed as Young Adult, but I would argue that it is much better for older middle grade kids. There is no explicit YA type content, and Johanna reads young in my mind--more like an eighth grader than a tenth grader. I think I would have enjoyed this lots at around 11, the age I was when I started on Rosemary Sutcliff.

Here's a great interview with Barnhouse at The Paper Wait.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I am such a sucker for working girl stories! (Oh, hm. That didn't sound quite right.)

    This reminds me of The Ramsay Scallop and The Midwife's Apprentice, and Catherine, Called Birdie -- all those medieval novels of girls and how they managed their lives in the world of rule-and-religion-mad ladies and Christ-and-Crusades mad men. I definitely want to read this.


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