Friday, February 29, 2008

Except for the Fleas! Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz

The Newbery Award, often given for strong, thematic novels, was won this year by the script written by the school's librarian for a group of middle school-aged students in an across-the-curriculum study of the Middle Ages. Faced with a potential cast in which "no one wanted a small part," the author settled upon a script of dramatic monologues and dialogues, some in rhyme, some in blank verse, and some in prose, to be spoken as if by young people of a medieval manor in the England of 1255.

This production's libretto became Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, bravely published* by Candlewick Press, and illustrated in beautiful watercolors reminiscent of medieval illuminations by Robert Byrd. Schlitz also utilizes the medieval manuscript's technique of the gloss, or marginal note, to elucidate the text, e.g., "Friants are boar droppings."

How does Schlitz work the medieval term for pig poop into her production? She does it organically and naturally, as she does in all the pieces, drawing us immediately into the character's external world and internal life. Here is Hugo, the Lord's nephew:

"I ran to the woods, where I saw his tracks--
this big--and the mud he scratched
bottom side the trees.
Followed his friants straight to his bed
and found it warm.
There was a boar in the forest."

When Hugo confesses his truancy from Latin to track the spoor of the boar, his uncle and lord cuts to the chase:

"Why then, we'll go hunting! And as for you,
you'll hunt like a man, or be flogged like a boy.
Help kill the boar, and I'll give you the kidneys--
turn tail and I'll have the skin off your back."

Hugo quails as he and his uncle dismount to meet the charge of the boar, "as huge as a horse," holding his ground on legs like straw with his spear in wet, shaking hands. Yet he stands to help fell the beast and earns the right to be called a man.

Each speech reveals the layers of interrelation among the residents of the manor, as we see on Maying Day, when Hugo's horse goes lame and the blacksmith's daughter, in her own words "big and ugly," capably calms Hugo's palfrey and tends to his shoe. All the while totally smitten with the "beauty of his face," and unable even to speak to Hugo as he leaves, Taggot wonderingly finds the sprig of hawthorn bloom he leaves on her anvil.

The voices of those in all stations is heard, from Jack the Half-Wit, to Isobel, the lord's daughter, Thomas, the doctor's son to Nelly the sniggler (eel-finder). All speak truthfully, revealing details of their times but also of their hearts. Here is Otho, the miller's son, speaking of the way of the world as true today as it was for him:

"Oh, God makes the water, and the water makes the river,
And the river turns the mill wheel
and the wheel goes on forever.
Every man's a cheater, and so every man is fed,
For we feed upon each other
when we seek our daily bread.

...My father used to beat me sore--
I've learned that life is grim.
And someday I will have a son--and God help him!"

A poignant dual monologue tells of the encounter between Jacob Ben Salomon, the moneylender's son, and Petronella, the merchant's daughter, as they come upon each other on opposite sides of a stream. Petronella picks up a stone, knowing that "the Christians always throw stones at Jews," but their eyes meet, and instead she skips the stone across the water, "skipping, swift and merry," and the two spend a half-hour, laughingly skipping stones playfully back and forth, until the bells for afternoon prayers remind them of their places in the world, and they leave the spot, never to tell a living soul of their encounter.

In short expository sections, titled "A Little Background" Schlitz amplifies aspects of medieval life, describing, for example, the "three-field system," "the Crusades," "Jews in medieval society," and "towns and freedom." But it is in the speeches themselves where the world of the speakers, with their faith and their failings, comes home to the readers. Here is Barbary, the mud slinger, who, saddled with her pregnant stepmother's obstreperous twins, vents her resentment of her lot by secretly throwing dung upon the silk gown of Isobel, the lord's daughter:

"It wasn't easy. I prayed
that God would forgive me--
that the muck would come out of her dress,
that my stepmother wouldn't die.

It made me think
how all women are the same--
silk or sackcloth, all the same.
There's always babies to be born
and suckled and wiped,
and worried over.
Isobel, the lord's daughter,
will have to be married,
and squat in the straw,
and scream with the pain
and pray for her life,
the same as me.

And thinking of that,
I added one more prayer--
sweet Jesus, come Christmas,
don't let it be twins."

Lowdy, the varlet's (animal keeper's) child, sums up the troubles that the medieval flesh is heir to in her complaint:

I'm used to the lice,
Raising families in my hair.
I expect moths to nibble holes
In everything I wear.
I scrape away the maggots
When they crawl across the cheese.
I can get used to anything,
Except for the fleas!

*Note: Apparently not anticipating a Newbery Award (or even big sales), Candlewick seems to have printed far too few of this beautifully designed book. I ordered Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! online on January 14 and received it only two days ago!

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  • If you like finding new books for young readers, may I suggest one? "Outcasts of Skagaray" by Andrew Clarke is uplifting and hopeful, without 'sugar-coating' life issues. Check to find out about it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:39 AM  


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:57 PM  

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