by Rebecca Barnhouse
Available as: hardcover, paperback, Kindle edition, ebook, audiobook
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: October 27, 2009
Suggested tags: middle grade, historical fiction, 15th century
"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."
I wasn't sure what to expect from The Book of the Maidservant, but the wonderful writing and the swiftly moving plot sucked me in from the very beginning and didn't let me go. This review is a little on the short side because I don't want to give away much beyond what the synopsis reveals; the action builds rapidly as Johanna finds herself facing one adventure after another, meeting wonderful friends and terrible enemies along the way, and I don't want to ruin any part of the excitement. I don't want to do anything that would prevent other readers from eagerly devouring page after page like I did, hooked on Johanna's unfolding story.
I'm not very familiar with medieval history, but Barnhouse definitely brought the time period alive. You can see and hear and smell everything right along with Johanna, both the good and the bad. As Johanna travels with the pilgrims, you get to experience medieval Europe through the eyes of a young girl, who must serve the party but still tries to preserve her own independence as much as she can.
Johanna struggles with her faith throughout the book in very realistic and age-appropriate ways. In a world and time where being a good and devout Christian is of great importance, she tries hard to keep her thoughts and actions kind, despite the many injustices being done to her. As she gets into increasingly difficult situations, she starts to feel like God and the saints have abandoned her. As she deals with all of this, the book never feels preachy. It simply allows you in to Johanna's thoughts as she tries to figure things out on her own.
The Book of the Maidservant was one of the best books I've read in a while. It's a wonderful work of middle grade historical fiction: realistic and educational while remaining very interesting and relatable. It doesn't make history cold and dry at all; medieval history comes alive with Barnhouse's remarkable storytelling. I borrowed The Book of the Maidservant from the library, but as soon as I finished it I put it on my "to buy" list - I need my own copy to reread again and again!
Overall rating: 4 out of 5 stars