One-Minute Book Reviews

January 26, 2008

A Review of the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!': Voices from a Medieval Village’

A prize-winning collection of linked monologues and dialogues in prose and poetry by characters, between 10 and 15 years old, who live on bankrupt English manor in the time of the Crusades

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Ilustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick, 85 pp., $15.95. Ages 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

This is a refreshingly subversive book. Perhaps only a school librarian like Laura Amy Schlitz could have found a way not just to publish but to win a Newbery Medal for a book that defies almost every fashion in American education.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is about children like the destitute Barbary, who knows that a lord’s daughter will someday give birth “and squat in the straw, / and scream with the pain / and pray for her life / same as me.” It’s about girls like the crippled Constance, who makes a pilgrimage to a site associated with Saint Winifred, who was decapitated after she fought a man who tried to “seize” (read: rape) her. (Her head miraculously reattached itself her body.) And it’s about boys like the miller’s son Otho, who plans to cheat his customers the way his father does because: “There’s no use in looking back, / for here’s the truth I’ve found: / It’s hunger, want, and wickedness / that makes the world go ’round.”

This book is, in other words, about everday life in the Middle Ages, as described in 19 linked monologues and two dialogues by characters between the ages of 10 and 15. All of the speakers live on or near an English manor that, in 1255, has been bankrupted by the Crusades. So it isn’t surprising that their talk often turns to God, Jesus, the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, Hell, Judgment Day and saints who died gruesome deaths. Their lives are so brutal that for some, this world has nothing on the next.

To help children make sense of all of it, Schlitz adds background in marginal notes and pages of explanatory text that can get a bit breezy. Why did people go on Crusades? Partly because the pope said that killing people was “a religious duty”: “Ordinary people could escape the tedium of their everyday lives, see the world, kill Muslims, and go to heaven in the bargain.” Schlitz almost makes it sound as though you could get frequent flyer miles for it. In a post-9/11 world, you can’t get much less fashionable than talking about killing Muslims, in a tone that borders on flip, in book intended for use in schools.

The monologues tend to work better than the interleaved explanatory pages, but it’s unclear why some characters speak in prose and others in poetry. The verse forms range from bouncy dactyls to stately heroic couplets, which helps to keep the speeches from becoming monotonous. But some of Schlitz’s poetry is hard enough to scan that it may defeat many students and even teachers. This book would have benefited from a few notes on the verse forms and on the obvious parallels with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Even so, it’s a worthy Newbery winner. Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! offers a fascinating view of the Middle Ages from which many adults may learn as much as children. Schlitz’s characters tell exciting stories of falconry, boar-hunting and other pursuits that offer more realistic view of medieval life than fairy tales about demure princesses. And although the Newbery judges aren’t supposed to consider the artwork, it can’t have hurt that this book has such appealing watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations by Robert Byrd, who found inspiration in an illuminated poem from 13th-century Germany.

Best line: A lament by Lowdy, the daughter of a varlet (a man who looked after the animals owned by the lord of the manor): “Fleas in the pottage bowl, / Fleas in the bread, / Bloodsucking fleas / In the blankets of our beds …” Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! has many good lines, but these stand out because they are written in dactylic meter, which is much less common in children’s books than iambic or anapestic.

Worst line: Schlitz writes about the Children’s Crusade as though its existence were an established fact: “In 1212, a French shepherd boy had a vision that the Holy Land could be recovered by innocent children. Thirty to forty thousand children from France and Germany set off to Palestine, believing that God would favor their cause because of their faith, love, and poverty. They believed that when they reached the Mediterranean, it would part, like the Red Sea. They were mistaken. Most of them starved, froze to death, or were sold into slavery.” Many scholars question whether this crusade occurred or, if it did, whether it attracted “thirty to forty thousand” children. Schlitz gives no source for this information beyond a general bibliography that lists only one book that deals primarily with the Crusades.

Published: August 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! won the 2008 John Newbery Medal from the American Library Association, given to the most distinguished work of American literature for children www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/newberymedal/newberymedal.htm .
Schlitz also wrote an excellent neo-Gothic novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/. Robert Byrd’s site is www.robertbyrdart.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. This site posts a new review of a book for children or teenagers every Saturday.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 13, 2007

Remembering a One-Room School in Iowa in a New Memoir — When Mail-Order Catalog Pages Were Toilet Paper — Quote of the Day (Richard Willis)

Few Americans remember what it was like to learn in a one-room schoolhouse. One who does is Richard Willis, an 80-year-old New York actor and retired theater professor who played Asa Buchanan’s butler, Nigel, on the soap opera One Life to Live. He recalls the small white Aurora Schoolhouse in Long Gone (Greenpoint Press, 192 pp., $20, paperback), a new memoir of growing up on a farm in Marengo, Iowa, in the 1930s and ’40s. Here’s part of what he says about his education:

“Our school was heated by a big, jacketed stove placed a little off-center in the room. Midwest winter temperatures dropped to twenty, sometimes thirty, degrees below zero. A teacher’s quality was sternly tested when it came time to bank the fire so that it would hold the night. Only a real veteran could keep a fire going over the weekend. When the fire burned out, as it often did, kids coming to school after a freezing walk of a mile or two found the place icy cold. While the room warmed up – it seemed to take forever – the youngest of us sat with our feet up on a railing around the base of the stove, but older pupils had to endure (proudly) the chill at their desks. Ink froze solid, and all of the work had to be done in pencil until the schoolroom warmed up …

“Sanitary arrangements were primitive. Two outdoor privies were set at the edge of the schoolyard. They smelled bad. The older boys told me that if you carried any food into a privy (I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to do that) it would be poisoned.

“Regular toilet paper was a luxury our school district couldn’t afford. We made do with discarded mail order catalogs, the softer index pages much preferred over the stiff coated-paper pages. One of our neighbors stocked his privy with a crock full of clean corncobs instead of paper – I am not making this up – but things were never that bad at school.”

You can read other excerpts from Long Gone in the Summer 2005 and Summer 2006 issues of Ducts www.ducts.org, a webzine that specializes in personal stories. Greenpoint Press is a subsidiary of New York Writers Resources www.newyorkwritersworkshop.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 15, 2007

The Five People You Meet on a Golf Course: Billy Mott’s Novel, ‘The Back Nine’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:56 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

An actor and caddy tees off with a tale of a 40-year-old man who, out of the blue, becomes the best player in golf

Finished The Back Nine (Knopf, $24), which I quoted in a post earlier this week. And while I don’t know the author’s golf handicap, his writing handicap is about a 12. Billy Mott is a Los Angeles actor and caddy who deftly evokes the tedium, servility and ruthlessness of the caddy shack at a California golf club. But his novel is otherwise pure escapist fiction: stock characters and a far-fetched plot with lots of golf play-by-play and an overlay of Mitch Albom–style sentimentality about father-son relations. At the age of 40, washed-up Charlie MacLeod returns to a sport that he abandoned years earlier and, out of the blue, becomes the best player in golf while falling into the orbit of a nasty group of high-rollers who bet on matches. Can he maintain his integrity when confronted by people with nicknames like the Czar? What would Mitch Albom say?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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