Monday, November 16, 2009

The servant strikes back

One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction, I think, is the painless history. With The Book of the Maidservant, I reaped the rewards of painless English literature as well. The author, Rebecca Barnhouse, was inspired by The Book of Margery Kempe which is -- evidently -- the first memoir written in English. Margery Kempe, born around 1373, was a devoutly religious woman who -- after having 14 children -- determined that she should live separately from her husband so she could properly worship the Virgin Mary. A few years later, she got the call to make a pilgrimage to Rome and to the Holy Land. Following that first trip, it seems that the travel bug in general bit her and she made several other lengthy journeys. Then, she dictated her memoirs in English, and I guess they've never gone out of print.

As she described that first pilgrimage, Dame Margery railed against the unnamed young woman who accompanied her on the journey. In Barnhouse's book, the maidservant, called Johanna, gets her own back. Through Johanna's eyes, we discover that Dame Margery is a pious pain in the ass -- loudly and constantly proclaiming her faith and driving the other pilgrims so crazy that they eventually boot her from their group. Poor Johanna came along believing that she was to serve Dame Margery only, but instead she ends up the general slavey for the group of eight travelers -- cooking and cleaning for them after a day of tramping on foot across Europe. Johanna, too, gets separated from the group -- escaping from a violent attempt at rape (I think), and through her own grit and determination, finds safety and security (along with an old friend)in the English pilgrims' hospice in Rome.

Why is the plucky Medieval heroine such a trope in children's/teen literature (am I using trope correctly here)? I like these girls, I like the historical details, I like Johanna. Her actions and reactions seem true to the period, but she's got an independent streak that makes her appealing to 21st century readers.

The narrator is new to me, Susan Duerden. Let me say that in her portrayal of young Johanna, she does not sound like her pictures in this audiobook. No blonde temptress here. She gives a soft-voiced, feisty, yet innocent performance in the voice of a 15th century illiterate servant. Duerden also creates an individual voice for each of the pilgrims in Dame Margery's party: Pious, pompous Dame Margery, a lascivious thug sent on pilgrimage to save his soul, a timid priest, a merchant, an old man and his young wife, their manservant who has a speech defect, and two young university men who sing drinking songs and make jokes in Latin. (Johanna gets a bit of a crush on one of the students, named John Mouse, as does the young wife.) Each is created with just a few subtle alterations in her voice, and Duerden sustains these characters throughout the bulk of the novel.

It sounds a bit like The Canterbury Tales, doesn't it, only without the other pilgrims' stories? And, I guess that was why I was ultimately a bit bored by Johanna. Even though she draws spot-on portraits of her fellow travelers (that Duerden uses in her narration), it's really just her story. And, her story isn't interesting enough to last me nearly seven hours. When the company sets out to cross Europe, the days begin to run together: They are walking, it is raining, they are squabbling. I didn't feel like we were getting anywhere. By the time the novel makes its turn -- Dame Margery is left behind and Johanna runs away -- I was truly not paying much attention.

I like the concept of this book, but came away a bit bored by its execution.

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