Sunday, April 12, 2015

Reading Through History: The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli (1949)

When Robin's parents leave home to help the king and queen during the war, they plan for him to stay with Sir Peter de Lindsay, who will employ him as a page and prepare him for knighthood. When the plague strikes, however, the servants abandon the family home, and though Robin does not catch the plague, he finds himself stricken with a mysterious paralysis in both his legs and with no doctor to care for him. Though he is rescued by a friar named Brother Luke and taken to safety at a nearby monastery, Robin is convinced he will shame his parents now that he cannot properly fulfill the role of page. It is up to Brother Luke and a minstrel named John Go-in-the-Wynd to teach Robin useful skills such as swimming and wood carving, and to help him see the door in the metaphorical wall that is his newfound disability.

In some ways, my experience reading this book was influenced by the fact that I had just read Adam of the Road. At first glance, both books are very similar. Each involves a young boy's coming of age as he is separated from his parents and goes on a long journey to find them again. Reading the two stories back to back made The Door in the Wall feel a little bit more tedious than it otherwise would have. That said, the two books are different in a variety of ways. For one thing, The Door in the Wall focuses on a darker side of the Middle Ages. In Adam of the Road, the main character is a minstrel and there is a sense of fun and adventure in everything that happens. The Door in the Wall deals with plague, disability, hardship, and battle, and there are several situations that are truly a matter of life-and-death. The Door in the Wall also conveys a very specific message about making the best of one's situation and looking for opportunities to overcome difficulties. While it is not necessarily a preachy book, it has a much clearer moral than Adam of the Road.

Though this book is short, I would not say that it is an easy read. Upper elementary students are probably the best audience, though it might work as a read-aloud with second or third graders interested in the time period. From an educational standpoint, the story teaches a lot about the role of religion during the Middle Ages, and it gives kids an opportunity to witness day-to-day living in a monastery, on the road, and in a castle. For a short book, it does manage to pack in a lot of great details which will help contextualize lessons on this time period. Robin is also a likable and humble hero, which makes him easy to relate to even when he is accomplishing feats most able-bodied contemporary children would never imagine themselves attempting.

I am thankful, that I didn't have to live in medieval Europe as I don't think I would have lasted very long! The Door in the Wall is an excellent book, but I recommend reading it in isolation rather than in combination with a lot of other medieval stories as I have just done.

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