In this episode of Decoding the Newberry, Catherine Faris King reads Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz
Decoding the Newbery is a monthly column in which Newbery Medal winners are examined and deconstructed by regular contributor and author Catherine Faris King. This month, Catherine examines a newer winner of the prestigious award–from 2008.
“Oh, God makes the water, and the water makes the river,
And the river turns the mill wheel
And the wheel goes on forever.
Every man’s a cheater, and so every man is fed,
For we feed upon each other,
When we seek our daily bread.”
— Words of Otho, the Miller’s Son,
from Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!
You want to hear a story? Let me tell you the story behind Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, Newbery winner of 2008, because I love it. Ahem. Hwaet!
School librarian and author Laura Amy Schlitz was helping the fifth-grade students study the Middle Ages. As she says in the Foreword, “they were going at it hammer and tongs” – studying everything from crop rotation to manuscript illumination. Schlitz had the idea of writing a play for them to perform.
She remembered that when she was a fifth-grader, performing in a play, she would cherish any role she was cast in, and give it all she had – even if it was just one line! She didn’t want to stick any actor in a bit part, but to give each child a big role. But plays with seventeen lead players are in short supply. Even Les Miserables only manages about ten big roles for a coherent narrative.
So Schlitz discarded the coherent narrative. Instead, she wrote a series of standalone monologues. In the tradition of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, they cover all social classes, from the outcasts to the workers to the nobility. Some speeches are in verse, some are in prose. There are two double monologues – soliloquies delivered side-by-side, discussing the same event or idea. There are a handful of pages that provide more historical background. Finally, in the tradition of Henrik Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, there is a “further reading” section for the young Medievalist historian.
Yet taken together, Schlitz has written a rich, moving tapestry of a work, a collage of mini-fictions, each executed with heart and skill, that add up to a Newbery winner that is simply superb.
To try to break it down…
The story is set in an unnamed Small Town, somewhere in England. It is small enough that most of the characters have some involvement with one another, but large enough that there is a town – a market, guilds for workers, a space for the middle class. Schlitz’s opening says that the characters are somewhere between ten and sixteen years old. On the whole, I say they qualify for Kid Heroes.
The Hands-On Activities abound – lambing, glassblowing, leatherworking, medicine, hunting, and more. Beyond that, though, the theatrical form keeps it from following the Newbery Formula very closely. Elements of it do occur – sometimes more than once. Schlitz, who as a school librarian is and was well-versed in Newbery winners of all sorts, manages to work these elements into the monologues in atypical, creative ways.
For instance, when she writes a Death By Newbery Medal, it is not according to the formula. Will, the plowboy (Monologuer #4), remembers his father, who died four years before the story begins. Will’s monologue dwells on the injustice of the three-field system, and the lack of any other options in Will’s family’s future. But when he thinks of his deceased father, the effect is of a piece with the end of Bridge to Terabithia, A Single Shard, and others. Will is determined to honor his father’s memory, which means following in his footsteps. “I always did everything he told me,” he says, “and I always will, so long as I live.” In just a few sentences, Schlitz uses the Death by Newbery Medal trope to illustrate how love underwrites and upholds social order – no matter how oppressive.
In one speech, Alice, a shepherdess, labors to save her favorite sheep (and Animal Friend) by singing to her. The sheep is restored, and divine (or ovine) grace rewards Alice’s perseverance. A nice, happy ending.
Other speakers will not be so lucky, such as Mariot and Maud, the glassblower’s daughters. They discuss their future prospects of Romance; specifically, their father marrying one of them off to his apprentice. Maud rails against this, in the mode familiar to historical heroines. Arranged marriage? Never! Surely there has to be a way out. Surely something so unjust will never stand.
But Mariot, the elder sister, knows that there will be no deliverance. She accustoms herself to the idea of marrying this near-stranger of a boy. She feels a tenderness towards him – the seeds of love. This Romance is the willful continuation of the social order. When Alice worked to save her sheep, love made wonder out of bleakness. Maybe Mariot will enjoy the same providence. It’s not the ideal, but if you give it your all, it may turn out alright.
But maybe it won’t. Children learn from their parents, and they pick up hatred, despair, and bitterness alongside kinder traditions. Otho, the miller’s son, provides our page quote in a monologue full of furious despair. He looks back on his grandfather, father, and himself – all millers, all scammers, all full of hate towards the peasants who hate them right back. “And someday I will have a son,” Otho says, “and God help him!” His monologue captures the bleak Christianity of the era, the intractable social classes, and the pattern of abuse handed down between generations.
Heavy stuff for a piece of juvenile fiction. But Schlitz trusts her readers to be able to handle these intense themes without dumbing them down or outright rejecting them. She respects them, which is so important to the success of children’s media, whatever the form. Schlitz trusts her readers to empathize – and Good Masters requires empathy. In addition to its other virtues, Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! dives headfirst into the mindset of the Medieval period, which makes it such a rich work of historical fiction.
There is a powerful contrast between two modes of thinking. In one mode, heaven is providential and faith is as tangible as wind. There are portents in every falling sparrow, and a glorious war looms on the horizon.
Then, sometimes in the very next line, there’s a brutal world. A web of dreads looms over everyone – they fear crop failure, death by overwork, death by childbirth. The class system and generational prejudice fractures its people, but the characters all do their best to get by – often thinking of heaven and providence as sources of hope.
This dichotomy is clearest in the monologue of Constance, the pilgrim. In her own words, she “was born crookbacked, crippled, and fell,” and is traveling to the holy spring of St. Winifred, seeking a cure. She refers to the social stigma she has endured all her life, saying “a hunchback’s life is a life of scorn.” Constance is full of zeal and faith, but this instills a greater sense of ambiguity in the modern reader. Hot springs or mineral salts aside, can a lifelong birth defect be cured by praying? Schlitz leaves Constance still journeying, her ultimate fate obscure. Schlitz says, “Medieval people did not share our need to understand the world scientifically.” To quote Louis Sachar, the reader will have to fill in the holes themselves.
(A quick aside: the books that I have read for Decoding the Newbery have not featured much representation in the way of disability. Witch of Blackbird Pond features Mercy Wood, and Young Fu features Fu Be Be. Good Masters has two disabled characters – Constance is physically disabled, and Jack has some mental disability that is never clearly delineated. Each has their own monologue and their own agency.)
Constance’s monologue touches lightly on the Social Issue of prejudice against the disabled. Schlitz includes many Social Issues, and she provides very few easy answers. A Jewish boy and a Christian girl may play together for a moment, but that’s not going to overturn a structure of Anti-Semitism that reaches all the way to the Pope. Two girls – one noble, one poor – think about the severe limitations and dismal prospects of their gender – and they don’t even connect in solidarity. Giles, the book’s final speaker, makes his living by scamming the pious and selling fake relics. So much for the mode of magical thinking.
I realize I may be making this book sound like a real downer. But that’s another testament of Schlitz’s respect for her audience. Good Masters can be practical but never tedious, and in terms of mood it is grim but never hopeless. In the little village she creates, the moments of hope, joy, and humanity shine out all the more warmly for their fully realized setting. Despite the gulf between her characters and her readers – a gulf not only of time and distance, but of thoughts and paradigms – she shows human nature, recognizable and incorrigible as ever.
So… What’s Next?
What’s next is my very last Decoding the Newbery column for the foreseeable future. I will be reviewing the Newbery winner for 2015 – Matt de la Pena’s Last Stop on Market Street. I don’t know a thing about it, other than that it is the first Newbery winner authored by a Latino artist. I look forward to discovering it with you. See you in February!