I loved this handsome Newbery-winning book when it first came out, and I was delighted to find this relatively inexpensive paperback edition at Barnes and Noble so I could have another release copy.
It's a collection of statements/songs/poems by different characters from a typical medieval village, describing aspects of their lives, relationships, hopes, fears - with annotations to tie the first-person accounts to historical elements, and with illustrations by Robert Byrd inspired by illuminated manuscripts from the 13th century.
And what a marvelous book! The author explains why she created it - one of her classes was studying the Middle Ages and wanted something to act out, and were miffed to learn that Shakespeare neglected to write any plays that had 17 equally-important characters with significant parts. [I bet some of his actors were miffed at that too.] Anyway, she wrote her own set of miniature plays for a set of characters who inhabit the same village, with various interrelationships between them, a bit along the lines of Spoon River Anthology.
The pieces are written to be spoken (and, ideally, performed) by kids from about 10 to 15, but they're not overly simplistic - in fact, I was surprised at the amount of period detail that the author managed to fit into these little anecdotes, along with references to attitudes towards religion, class, and individual rights, any one of which could raise some serious discussions. [There are brief explanatory sections included for some of these, but they don't run more than a page or two. But there's a four-page bibliography for those who want to dig a little deeper.]
Some of the characters are pretty happy, or at least content with their lot, while others are angry, fearful, or just numb. Indeed, a few of the speeches reveal extreme suffering, abuse, and cruelty - sometimes done by the speaker, other times done to them - and it could be pretty harrowing for some kids to put themselves into character even briefly. But that only makes me admire the collection more. And some of the relationships between the characters were so deftly sketched that I could see much more of a back story than was actually given.
That might make the book sound grim, and that's not the case; there are warm relationships, upbeat situations - and some pretty entertaining tidbits in the sidebar notes too. For example, one young lordling goes on a boar hunt, with the prize to be the "kidneys, gleaming with fat," and the sidebar note says: "However the actor feels about kidneys and fat, this line should be spoken with enthusiasm. In the Middle Ages, it was difficult to get enough protein and fat in the diet. The kidneys of the boar would be a real treat."
I enjoyed the whole book so much that it's hard to name favorite bits, but I did like the related segments for Otho the miller's son (presented in ballad form, with a refrain that gets darker as the ballad progresses) and Jack the half-wit - an unexpected tie-in, there, and a memorable one. And the entries from Isobel the lord's daughter, and Barbary, a poor peasant girl who has to do the marketing while tending her twin half-siblings, are very poignant as well.
One of the more light-hearted entries was from Lowdy, "the varlet's child" - her father tends the master's hounds, you see, and:
"I've helped clean the kennels,
Held the puppies on my knees.
I love the dogs, but God's bones!
The house is full of fleas!"
The rest of her song rollicks between her daily duties and her family life, with the fleas a constant refrain - a cheerful song from a hard-working and upbeat individual, but one that does make the reader itch out of sympathy.
Most of the parts are for one performer, but there are a couple of duets as well. One of these features Mariot and Maud, the glassblower's daughters, who take turns discussing their father's proposal that one of them should marry his apprentice; could be tricky to perform without stepping on each other's lines, but it's great fun to read.
And the book closes with the jaunty tale of the only-slightly-guilty beggar, Giles, as he recounts how he and his father persuade the villagers to part with their money - and how they pray that God will look after His foxes as well as His sheep.
Very, very enjoyable book!