Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Door in the Wall

The Door in the Wall, by Marguerite de Angeli, was the fifth Newbery winner set in 13th or 14th century England that I've read this year (see here for a discussion of the medieval settings of the different winners). De Angeli doesn't ever say exactly what year this story takes place, but since it is during the reign of Edward III, during and after outbreaks of the plague, and at the end of the Scottish wars, I think it has to be between 1350-1365.

Unlike the other reviewers - so far, anyway - I didn't like this book a great deal. I couldn't help comparing it (unfavorably) to the other medieval Newbery winners - Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, Crispin, The Midwife's Apprentice, and even Adam of the Road (which won the award in 1943, just seven years before The Door in the Wall won).

The Door in the Wall was a just little too heavy-handed for me. The idea that God always provides "a door in the wall" when bad things happen doesn't appeal to me much. I've always really hated it when people tell me that "when God closes a door, he always opens a window." Part of this can undoubtedly be chalked up to my lack of faith. I do think that many Christians might find this story meaningful, and de Angeli did an excellent job of describing medieval church rituals (including many feast days and daily bells and prayers, like Nones and Vespers), and of showing how the Church was such an integral part of everyday life in the 14th century.

Perseverance and courage are definitely important qualities, but I'd rather see them demonstrated, and not have characters preaching about this to Robin (the ten year old crippled protagonist) and the reader. The story bored me until I was near the end, when the castle where Robin is being fostered comes under siege. I did really like the details about the castle (boiling oil to pour on invaders' heads! a keep, a Great Hall!), and de Angeli's pencil illustrations are quite charming, and added a lot to the story. I wanted a few maps, too, though (how far was it from the castle at Lindsay on the Welsh border to London?). Here's a photo I took of the illustration of the Great Hall, since I couldn't find any of her illustrations from the book online:

I just read The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry a few weeks ago (reading The Giver started me on all of her works, and I grow ever more impressed with her versatility and skill). Anyway, The Door in the Wall fits so very perfectly in Lowry's bibliography of "old-fashioned children's books" in the back of The Willoughbys (I wish Lowry had included all the older Newbery books in there!), which include stories of "piteous but appealing orphans....magnanimous benefactors, and transformations wrought by winsome children." Granted, Robin isn't an orphan, but his parents are absent for most of the story. And the book is definitely quite old-fashioned (and I think quite unlikely to interest my son or many of his soon-to-be-entering 6th grade friends).

Finally, it's a very minor, nit-picky point, but I thought it was a little weird that there was a horse named Bayard in The Door in the Wall, when there was also a horse named Bayard in Adam of the Road (would de Angeli have read Adam of the Road? How widely known were Newbery winners of the 1940's?). Was every other horse called Bayard in the Middle Ages?

1 comment:

sally apokedak said...

Bayard was a magic bay horse from the chansons de geste (french poems dating from the 11th or 12th century). He could adjust his size to fit his rider. So it would make sense that people in the 13th and 14th centuries would name their horses Bayard.

Jonathon Rogers, who wrote The Bark of the Bog Owl Trilogy named the wise man in the books Bayard the Truthsayer.

So when I saw your remark I went and looked it up on wikkipedia to see what all the Bayards were about.


Cool blog, BTW. I've been reading the Newbery award books for a couple of years. Not exclisively but picking them up every time I see one.