The Book of the Maidservant


by Rebecca Barnhouse

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen


Recommended for: A boy or girl, aged ten and up, who you’d really like to punish.


One Word Summary: Dry.


Is there a child in your life who loves unspecific Medieval history, Christian epics, and finds the woes of the serving class fascinating? What child doesn’t long for the hardscrabble romance of the fifteenth century, with its desperate and poignant struggles, all the washing of clothes in streams, the abused and battered women, the contents of chamber pots sloshing from windows, and plaque-decayed teeth?


Are those crickets I hear?


I’m rather at a loss in reviewing the Book of the Maidservant, because commenting on the strength of the

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writing, and the subtle humor of the rendering of the characters feels like complimenting the paint job on the Titanic: the trim may be nice, but she just ain’t gonna float. 


The story, based on real historical figures, concerns Johanna, a dutiful, resourceful servant in the 1400s, who tends to Dame Margery, a zealously devout woman from a prominent religious family. Dame Margery, who has the fabulously absurd habit of lapsing into torrents of weeping every time she thinks about the suffering of Jesus, and is convinced that God speaks to her directly, decides that it’s her duty to walk from her home in Briton to Rome on a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Basilica.  As fun as that sounds, of course it wasn’t.  


As they go, Johanna and Margery join with a handful of thinly developed travelers who round out the story, but don’t quite manage to give it thrust. And, well, they walk. Bickering ensues when Margery

annoys everyone to pieces, sobbing as she prattles on about saints and bible stories while they climb the Alps, and even the faithful Johanna’s nerves are worn thin as she’s forced to become servant to the entire group and receives nothing from Margery in the way of gratitude or support.


In technique, Rebecca Barnhouse is a very skillful writer. The subject matter is ambitious, and Barnhouse is to be commended for a believable depiction of a woman living in this era, undertaking an unfathomably huge and difficult adventure. There’s an austere grace with which she portrays Johanna, and as an adult reader, her character was enough to keep me interested in her journey. The problem with this book, however, is that there is no suspense or drive of plot to pull a young reader through all the not so interesting historical details.


There may be a feeling of triumph in what Johanna overcomes, but a sense of climax is curiously absent from the structure of the story, and the main dynamic of the book, the relationship between Johanna and Margery, is cast aside. Rather than growing as a character, Margery becomes flatter and more stereotypical the closer they get to Rome, and though it may be the point, the two women never come to understand each other or even acknowledge that a real relationship exists between them, which was a disappointment.


I felt unclear as to what it was Johanna really wanted, other than to go home, or just sit down for a minute. The suggestion of a romance is tossed her way, but isn’t developed, and a secret family drama is revealed, but its connection to the plot or what the reader is supposed to take from its revelation is ambiguous.


But as previously stated, none of these points of criticism are relevant, because I’m not sure what child is going to sit through all the wimple pinning. Optimistically, this book will play well to a highly literate demographic of kids for whom the period detail and epic journey will be engaging. If there is such a niche, I hope the two of them have managed to find each other and form some kind of support group.

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© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012