In Rebecca Barnhouse’s The Book of the Maidservant, Dame Margery Kempe is the most pious woman in Lynn, a natural candidate for undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome. The only problem is that her teenage serving girl Johanna must accompany her—and Johanna knows she won’t be a pilgrim, just a maidservant. She has never been far from the home she loves, and she has misgivings about traveling with Dame Margery, who is prone to lamentations and caterwauling, and insists that there be no laughing or joking. When Dame Margery abandons Johanna in Venice, she must summon the strength to continue on to Rome and find a new place in the world.
It is Johanna’s voice—at times longing for home, at times angry, fearful or sad—that will draw readers in and make them care about this memorable character. Johanna really did exist, though not by that name, in The Book of Margery Kempe, the first autobiography written in English. Barnhouse has taken the essence of Kempe’s story of the 1413 pilgrimage and brought it to life with sensory details about the journey across the Alps and the sights and smells of the markets of Venice. This moving volume may well lead interested readers to other excellent tales of medieval life, including two Newbery Medal-winning tales—Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice (1995) and Amy Laura Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village (2007).