The Newbery winner for 2008, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village came into being because its author, Laura Amy Schlitz, who is a librarian at the Park School in Baltimore, had a group of students who were studying the Middle Ages. The students were building model castles, growing herbs, and illuminating manuscripts, but to round out their educational experience Schlitz wanted to give them some material they could perform. And since she didn't think it possible to write a play for seventeen characters and give them all equal time, she wrote nineteen monologues and two dialogues, so that “for three minutes at least, every child could be a star”.
I wish Schlitz had worked at my grade school. I remember how it felt to be one of only two people in my sixth-grade play whose “roles” did not involve a single line of dialogue and whose part in the action consisted of walking onto and off of the stage twice. And, more importantly, the play, written by our sixth grade teacher, was execrable.
Schlitz may mention excrement (as well as fleas, lice and other historically accurate if unsavoury facts of daily life in medieval times) in her monologues, but other than this her work is not to be compared to that sixth-grade play. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies is an excellent piece of work. In each of Schlitz's twenty-one vignettes, a character from medieval times tells us a simple story about some facet of his or her existence, gives us the sense of what life was like in those times, and in the process lays bare the essence of his or her personality. By the end of a few pages we know what the characters love, fear and desire most, what their probable fates will be, and how they cope with the hardships of their lives. Interspersed with the monologues are footnotes, sidenotes, and occasional full-length background notes explaining aspects of life in medieval times.
The historical notes are not only informative, revealing the depth of Schlitz's historical research, but often very witty. One comments that the logic of the assignment of saints to a type of work is macabre: Saint Bartholomew, the patron saint of tanners, was skinned to death; and Saint Lawrence, the patron saint of cooks, was roasted alive. Schlitz adds, tantalizingly, that “we won't even talk about what happened to Saint Erasmus — it's too disgusting.”
The illustrations in the book are woodcut-like pen-and-ink drawings by Robert Byrd. According to the book's jacket flap, Byrd took “inspiration from an illuminated thirteenth-century manuscript”. I would have preferred something tapestry-inspired, but then sometimes in writing these Newbery reviews I really must remind myself that these books are intended for kids, not for me. Byrd's drawings are undeniably cute, expressive, and period-appropriate.
The vignettes are wonderfully varied, and yet so elemental to human experience, regardless of one's place on the timeline of our existence. The lord's nephew faces a boar, and his fear of it, while hunting. The blacksmith's daughter finds that her size, looks and social status don't determine whom she can love. A plow boy takes pride in carrying on with his father's backbreaking work and responsibilities. “Crookbacked” Constance, a pilgrim, speaks of her despair over her deformity and her hope that she will be healed on her journey. A miller's son tells us how he is hated by the other village boys because his father adulterates the flour with chalk, but in his bitterness resolves to be the same kind of miller himself. A knight's son dreams of being a knight, but knows he must be a monk because his father has been bankrupted by war. The lord's daughter knows those who slung mud at her would take and enjoy her privileges if they could get them; the one who slung the mud knows the lord's daughter will not get through life without pain and worry. Pask, the runaway, tells us of his hopes that he has escaped his peasant's life and can become a skilled tradesman (but a historical note tells us he will probably not be able to do so). Maud and Mariot, the glassblower's daughters, know that one of them must marry their father's apprentice, and in a dialogue each comes to a decision about whether she can. A tanner's apprentice knows he is despised for the stinking processes he uses to make leather, but also knows that same people who despise him would not be willing to do without their shoes and saddles. And so it goes.
Schlitz makes each character come alive by giving us points of connection. Few people who read this book will have shod a horse, but most will have known what it is like to feel the lighting bolt of sudden, strong attraction to someone we can never be with. Almost none of this book's readers will have blown glass; all will know what it's like to do something for the first time and get lacklustre results, to feel a sense of accomplishment in having made a beginning, and to be all the more ready to try again.
In a foreword, Schlitz writes of how, as a student, she found that history as it was taught in the classroom was “about dead men who had done dull things”. It was only by reading historical novels that she learned that history was about survival, and could be very dramatic and fascinating. It was this exciting, living view of history, the stories of real people and the lives that they led, that she wanted to impart to her students. So she has, marrying fact with imagination and producing characters that seem to breathe. Not to mention that the material seems wonderfully actable.
And look up the fate of Saint Erasmus if you dare.