The Book of the Maidservant

Overview

“A funny and wise book about friendship, loyalty, and love.”—Karen Cushman

Johanna is a servant girl to Dame Margery Kempe, a renowned medieval holy woman. Dame Margery feels the suffering the Virgin Mary felt for her son but cares little for the misery she sees every day. When she announces that Johanna will accompany her on a pilgrimage to Rome, the suffering truly begins. After walking all day, Johanna must fetch water, wash clothes, and cook for the entire party of pilgrims....

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Overview

“A funny and wise book about friendship, loyalty, and love.”—Karen Cushman

Johanna is a servant girl to Dame Margery Kempe, a renowned medieval holy woman. Dame Margery feels the suffering the Virgin Mary felt for her son but cares little for the misery she sees every day. When she announces that Johanna will accompany her on a pilgrimage to Rome, the suffering truly begins. After walking all day, Johanna must fetch water, wash clothes, and cook for the entire party of pilgrims. Then arguing breaks out between Dame Margery and the other travelers, and Johanna is caught in the middle. As the fighting escalates, Dame Margery turns her back on the whole group, including Johanna. Abandoned in a foreign land WHERE she doesn’t even speak the language, the young maidservant must find her own way to Rome.

Inspired by the fifteenth-century text The Book of Margery Kempe, the first autobiography in English, debut novelist Rebecca Barnhouse chronicles Johanna’s painful journey through fear, anger, and physical hardship to ultimate redemption.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Jennifer Lehmann
Johanna, a servant in the home of Dame Margery Kempe, is just learning how to manage her mistress's more trying characteristics. The excessively pious woman breaks into loud sobs over the suffering of the Lord on a regular basis and frequently shares the revelations He gives her about the behavior of others. When Dame Margery decides to make a pilgrimage to Rome, Johanna is chosen to go with her. Already away from her sister and father, she must now make a long and potentially dangerous trip. The group of pilgrims they join includes several intriguing characters, some who become strong friends and welcome companions, others who bring more tension and danger. The interaction of this engaging group against the background of a fifteenth century pilgrimage creates a familiar, yet interesting, window into a world worth exploring. The details about the way life was lived at that time are clear yet delicately woven into the narrative. The pacing at the beginning of the book may be slow for readers not already interested in historical fiction. While the characters and their relationships with each other are developed fully and in good time, Johanna's relationship with her father and sister is revealed unevenly, leaving the resolution unsatisfying. The events are based on the first autobiography written in English, The Book of Margery Kempe, who described this trip and her complaints about her maidservant. Written from a reverse point of view, this trip comes alive for today's audience. Reviewer: Jennifer Lehmann
VOYA - Laura Woodruff
Young Johanna, living in fifteenth-century England, has been placed in the household of wealthy Dame Margery Kempe, an irritatingly devout woman given to loud displays of weeping for the sufferings of the Virgin Mary although she regularly abuses her servants. Dame Margery announces she will make a pilgrimage to Rome, and Johanna will accompany her as her personal maid. Johanna, who has never set foot outside her small town, prepares fearfully for a journey that quickly becomes one of drudgery and hardship. Dame Margery, greatly disliked by the other pilgrims, consigns Johanna to group servant and finally leaves them all, abandoning her. Evil pilgrim Petrus often beats Johanna and attempts to rape her in Venice, forcing Johanna to flee and use her wits to get to Rome. Despite betrayals, injuries, and near starvation, Johanna eventually finds sanctuary and a measure of peace in Rome's English hospice. This debut novel by a professor of medieval history is based upon the first autobiography in English, The Book of Margery Kempe. Johanna, who actually existed and is less attractively treated in that tome, becomes a real girl with her own point of view in this novel. Earthy, authentic, and engrossing, this fast-paced, easy read belongs on the shelf with Karen Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice (Clarion, 1995/VOYA August 1995) and Catherine, Called Birdie (Clarion, 1994/VOYA June 1994). Reviewer: Laura Woodruff
School Library Journal
Gr 7–10—Stories about pilgrimage have caught the imagination of readers since the days of Chaucer, and this one is based on the The Book of Margery Kempe, from the early 1400s and considered to be the first autobiography published in English. Barnhouse creates a lively protagonist in the character of Johanna, Lady Margery's serving girl. Unnamed and much maligned in the medieval account, Johanna takes on a life of her own here, recounting the hardships of the journey as she accompanies her difficult and loudly pious mistress to Rome. The sights, sounds, and deprivations of travel in the late Middle Ages—blistered feet, bug-infested beds, rain-soaked wool cloaks, moldy food—are all brought vividly to life along with the unlikely traveling companions who band together for protection but are constantly on one another's nerves. Above all, the story is Johanna's, and it constantly points out the vulnerability of a peasant girl whose survival depends in equal parts on luck, wit, and exhausting labor. In the end, she reveals a few secrets of her own character that will have today's young readers feeling a kinship with her. Pair this story with Kevin Crossley-Holland's Crossing to Paradise (Scholastic, 2008), include it in a unit on the medieval world or The Canterbury Tales, or simply suggest it as a rousing adventure tale and coming-of-age story.—Connie C. Rockman, Stratford Library Association, CT
Kirkus Reviews
In the author's note that follows Barnhouse's absorbing novel, readers learn that it was based on the first autobiography ever written in English, a woman's account of a pilgrimage from England to Rome in the 15th century. The author became fascinated by the woman's maidservant, who was inexplicably maligned by her mistress, and decided to retell the story from the domestic's perspective. Readers of this lively first-person tale, packed with fascinating historical detail, will be glad that she did. Maidservant Johanna is an engaging lass, hardworking and ingenious, who serves a mistress so pious yet uncharitable that she seems unhinged to modern eyes. In the course of Johanna's adventure, she comes to terms with the emotionally difficult familial circumstance that surround her indenture. But the heart of the story is the pilgrimage, a dangerous journey filled with privation and hardship, one that opens Johanna's eyes to a wider world and challenges her to grow in competence and stature. (Historical fiction. 10-13)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780739385531
  • Publisher: Random House Audio Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/27/2009
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Age range: 10 years
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Rebecca Barnhouse teaches and writes about medieval topics and children’s literature set in the Middle Ages. She lives in Youngstown, Ohio.

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Read an Excerpt

1

My mistress says you mustn't stare into the fire lest the devil look out at you from the flames. "He'll see into your soul," she says.

My mistress says a great many things about the devil.

But before cockcrow, when my mistress is still abed and I'm sitting on my heels coaxing the embers into life with my breath, I stare into the fire with no fear of the devil. The devil, I think, wakes up when my mistress does.

Before then, the house is quiet and my face is warm with the fire I'm making. I stare into the coals and the new little flames licking blue and yellow around the kindling, and I don't see the devil or the mouth of hell. I see summer and yellow sun, and in the smooth flames curling around the wood, I see clear water flowing through rushes the way it did in the stream when I was a little girl.

I've just long enough for a memory of splashing in the stream with my big sister, Rose, before the rafters tremble with the sound of my mistress stirring above.

Cook limps heavily into the kitchen and casts a baleful eye at the upstairs room. "There'll be weeping today, you mark me," she says, and busies herself with the pots.

It's a big house, this, for my mistress's father was five times Lord Mayor of Lynn and an alderman of the Holy Trinity Guildhall, too. The mistress doesn't let it be forgotten, not by the servants nor by the goodwives of the town, for all that she's a religious woman.

"She'll be wanting you," Cook says.

I lean forward to give the fire one last breath, although it doesn't need it. For one more instant, it's summer and I'm with Rose and the sun is warming my face.

Then I rock back on my heels and stand, letting the cold air settle around me. I heave the bucket of water I've brought in and start up the stairs.

I'm halfway up when the weeping begins.

"Ah, sweet Jesu," my mistress calls out, and then she is crying in earnest, great heaving sobs. "My sweet Lord," she cries.

I hover on the stairs. Up or down?

"Johanna!" My mistress shrieks my name from her room and up I scurry. I've been here long enough to know the consequences if I don't.

I open her door with my foot, swinging the heaving bucket into the room. She's sitting on her bed, her face in her hands, the tears coming fast. The water from my bucket goes into the hand basin with only a river or so spilled out, and then her foul-smelling night bucket is in my hands and I'm on the stairs again.

"Come back, you stupid girl."

I stop. Even when she's full of the passion that Our Lady Mary suffered for her poor son, my mistress notices things. You'd think she'd be blinded by her tears.

"The fire, Johanna."

I set the buckets down and creep into the room again. I had thought to come back for the fire later, when I brush her hair and pin up her headdress--after the weeping has abated. But my mistress likes to be warm and toasty while she shares Our Lady's pain.

The bellows crouch beside the fireplace. I mend the coals with the tongs, then blow them into flames with the bellows. Already, while my mistress was sleeping, I've brought up the coal. Also, I've scoured the bottles and pots left from yesterday. And brought in the water for Cook and for me, lots of water, fetched from the Common Ditch, a long walk through the ooze and muck of the streets in the chill damp of the morning.

My mistress feels such compassion for Our Lord, she cries and cries at the thought of him on his rood. You'd think she could spare some compassion for me. Almost June and still the mornings are cold as midwinter.

She interrupts her weeping...

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