I just finished reading The Book of the Maidservant by Rebecca Barnhouse. I don’t remember what or where I read about this title that made me want to purchase it, but the dust flap copy and the first page where enough to get me hooked.
Johanna has a likable voice. The book is written from her point of view, so the majority of it is internal monologue. In my own geeky way I loved that, because we get to explore this Medieval setting along with the main character and there where a handful of words and people I could investigate. Barnhouse is a good writer and the meanings could be gleaned from the text, but I like to know what every word means and possibly where it comes from. I also had the opportunity to pull out my Catholic Dictionary which I purchased while reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh years ago.
Then, about half way through the book, I began to get annoyed. More and more bad stuff kept happening to the main character, first everyone foisted off their chores on her, she repeatedly got knocked around by one of the pilgrims, abandon by her Mistress, and then attempted rape. While, I understand that values and attitudes where different then – no one says anything! One character, one of the few of the group of pilgrims that show her sympathy does intervene when she being drug upstairs at knife point, and due to the first person narrative we aren’t even allowed to find out what happens to him. I was getting more and more frustrated. She is not unresourceful. She learns fast, she commits small acts of defiance, and she figures out how to get to the next stop on her own.
The dust flap promised redemption and I just couldn’t see that we’d ever get there. Then finally at the last destination Johanna falls in with some good people and has to decide weather she will go back with her mistress who very well may abandon her again or will she stay? But the BIG redemption promised seems to be her act of confession. It seems Johanna has an anger issue dating further back then the ill treatment by the pilgrims journeying to the holy land. She finally confesses to herself and to us what really happen between her and her sister.
Does this make Johanna an unreliable narrator? If she was hiding the fact that maybe she was at fault even partly in what happen between her and her sister, if she is angry at herself most of all, am I missing something else? Is anything else on the journey shaded by that information? I don’t think she is lying about being hit or attached by the pub owner or the the other things her mistress and the pilgrims do. The big secret she carrying around with her is that she’s being angry at the wrong person, how did that effect those other relationships in light of the awful way she was treated. Everyone in the little party had a reason they were making the pilgrimage, expect Johanna. She was just being drug along by her mistress, but she found something she need to atone fore. Did she felt she deserved the awful trip, and the redemption was letting go of that along with the anger? I’ll have to think about that.
Is the mark of a good book one that entertains you, but lets you move on quickly? Or is the mark of a good book one in which you have to think about and fight with a little? One that annoys you until you unravel the thing that bother you about it?
I’ve tried tracking the down the author’s website for insights but it is broken or gone, which I think is odd if since The Book of the Maidservant is a new title. There are some essays by Barnhouse, which I’ve bookmarked to read later. The one I skimmed made the comment that most young adult novels set in the Middle Ages have characters which still possess modern values like questioning authority. As I mentioned earlier, when reading The Book of the Maidservant, I understood that these actions where probably of the time period. I also understand that even today many abuse victims don’t or can’t speak out, but the fact that no one else spoke out (realistic or not) bothered me. I usually like my fiction light and escapist. Then again those never inspire two page essays.
Next, there is how to recommend this book. It is a Middle Grade novel, I’d say 12 and up. It is very good historical fiction that is both light and funny and a bit dark in places. It is based on the journey of a real person. Margery Kempe, Johanna’s mistress, was real. There is a nice short essay in the back of the book explaining that Lady Kempe did travel on a pilgrimage with a unnamed maidservant, and the Book of Margery Kempe is widely considered the first English memoir ( I purchased that to read next). Would this be taught in public school with its religious references? How do you put it into the hands of kids perpetually searching for the shortest book on the list or the shinny cover? It’s 230 pages, which isn’t a door stopper, so that’s good and occasionally historical fiction is a genre assignment. I like the cover art by Grady McFerrin. It’s just that the colors are muted and even the red seems neutral. Maybe that will make it standout because all the other covers are screaming.
I don’t know why I’ve a hard time saying I liked this book. I say, “I guess I liked it”, even to myself. There were parts of it that were very fun to read and very funny. There were parts that annoyed me royally. I love the new additions to my definition list, and it inspired me to purchase the Book of Margery Kempe. So here goes, “I liked the Book of the Maidservant, warts and all.”