Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reading Through History: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz (2007)

One of  the first things I loved about this book was something I read on the book jacket. The author, Laura Amy Schlitz, originally wrote the monologues and scenes in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! for the students at her school, so each child could have an equal role to perform in a class presentation on medieval life. I was amazed (and impressed) that an educator would go so many extra miles for the good of her students, and on the flip side, I was equally impressed that something so good started out on such a small scale.

In general, I have a hard time relating to history unless someone invites me into the world of a particular historical time period, and gives me a decent likable character to guide me through that world. In this case, Schlitz has provided an entire cast of likable people to whom I could easily relate, despite the distance between their time and mine.

The cast includes such interesting and endearing characters as Taggot the blacksmith’s daughter, who feels too big to have a sweetheart, Alice the shepherdess who sings to soothe her sheep, Jack, the half-wit who is thankful for the death of his abusive father, and Jacob and Petronella, whose religious differences keep them from truly being friends, even though they meet one another fetching water at the stream.  Robert Byrd’s illustrations serve to illuminate the medieval village these characters populate, and a useful map at the front of the book shows each character’s name and location, which really helps to understand where each character is coming from in his or her speech.

Schlitz’s writing uses the language and style of the medieval world, but also manages to be quite clear and readable. I was never bored, and never dismissed any of her words as old-fashioned or irrelevant. In fact, this book has many simply beautiful moments, including this one from Jack the half-wit’s monologue:

Now it’s just Moggy
     and me, and Mother
     and the beasts,
           which is good.
           Heaven must be like this:
Jesus, and his Mother,
       and the dumb beasts,
       and angels fluttering ‘round like birds.
Nobody ale-drunk
       nobody yelling
       or hitting
       or jeering “Lack-a-wit.”
       Just friends.

I also loved this description from Barbary the Mud Slinger’s monologue.

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 pain
            and pray for her life
                   same as me.

This is a truly unique and well-executed book. I had no interest in it at all when it won the Newbery back in 2008, but I was wrong to dismiss it. In addition to the monologues (and a couple of scenes for two voices), this book is also infused with historical background, given in just the  right amount at just the right times. Footnotes provide vocabulary help, while longer sections answer any question that might pop into your head while reading.

I can imagine this collection was an excellent educational tool for the classrooms that used it before its publication, and it would be an amazing asset to a classroom or library lesson on medieval times. I really enjoyed it, and I can’t say enough good things about it.

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