Ten-year-old Robin, son of medieval nobleman Sir John Bureford, has been left behind in his father’s London mansion to recover from an unspecified illness which has left his legs useless. His father is off fighting with the King on the English border with Scotland and his mother has left to serve the Queen; both parents assume that Robin is himself gone to serve as page in a knight’s household near the Welsh border. Unbeknownst to him, the (bubonic) Plague is sweeping through the city and has either killed the remaining servants left behind or frightened them into fleeing the area. When Robin, spoilt frustrated scion of a wealthy family that he is, loses his temper with the housekeeper, the only servant remaining to care for him, even she flees.
A day or so later, one Brother Luke arrives to collect Robin, having heard of his plight from one of the Londoners fleeing the city and passing through his monastery. After a massage and a bowl of fish soup, Brother Luke takes Robin to the monastery, where the boy begins to learn patience, reading, manual skills such as woodworking, and most importantly not to feel sorry for himself and to think of others before his own self. After he’s recovered somewhat from the aftereffects of his illness, Brother Luke and John Go-in-the-wynd take Robin to the castle household where he’d been intended to stay before his illness. The lord of the manor accepts the boy, despite his infirmity, as not only had he promised the boy’s father, but Robin himself had begun to prove himself able to perform at least some of the duties required of a page despite being partially paralyzed.
The Welsh lay siege to the castle, and after supplies and water run low, Robin volunteers to swim the moat and cross the countryside to the cottage of John-go-in-the-wynd’s mother, to send a message out to the neighboring landholders for help. He succeeds in reaching the cottage, and John-go-in-the-wynd succeeds in raising the alarm among the local castles. Some weeks after the seige is lifted, Robin’s parents return to the host’s domain, released from service to the king and queen and to reclaim their son, whom they have not seen for months. Robin is at first afraid that his parents will think less of him for his paralysis, which renders him unable to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a knight to follow the King in battle. His parents, like Brother Luke, reassure him that there is a way to find fulfillment in service for all of us; we need only find the door in the wall to permit us through.
This is another one of the older Newbery Award winners whose place in the modern public library’s juvenile collection is uncertain in my mind. (Academic libraries are another matter entirely, if they’ve got a program which studies children’s literature.) It is a more than slightly sanitized version of the Middle Ages; while there are clearly diseases, famines and not a lot of the modern niceties such as indoor plumbing and central heating, de Angeli does not delve into much detail. There are a few plot holes–I’m not sure why none of the adults thought to swim the moat under cover of darkness and fog as Robin did, but perhaps the enemy soldiers surrounding the castle would have been more suspicious of an adult…and besides, I don’t think that’s the point of the book.
Modern readers have complained about the lessons of stoicism Robin is forced to learn, and indeed in a modern softer society, it’s perfectly all right for a boy ten years old to not only express frustration at a disability but cry in fear once in a while. Robin seems to learn Brother Luke’s lessons awfully quickly–not just reading, swimming, and woodworking but “Be brave.”, “Don’t complain.” “Think of others.” “Do what you know you ought though it be frightening or painful.” but then it’s entirely possible Robin had begun to learn them already. Life, even for the nobility, wasn’t easy in the fourteenth century. I suspect that ten years old was far more grown in the fourteenth century than in the twenty-first, and indeed wouldn’t be surprised if Robin had already begun to learn some skill at arms when he became ill. (Read T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, for starters.)
As with many of the other Newbery winners of that vintage, I’d say “keep it if you’ve got it, but don’t go out of your way to buy it”. Unless you’ve got a cadre of bookish little boys whose reading abilities have outstripped their maturity, not to mention their physical abilities. Like Wind in the Willows and Maria Gripe’s books, it may give an interesting glimpse into a past kids of that age will know little about, even though it’s similarly cushioned.