Adam of the Road
Elizabeth Janet Gray (1943)
Read to: K - 5th grade
Read independently: 4th+ - 9th grade
The first thing I noticed about this book was how immensely readable it is. It's as if the author placed each word and each comma with consideration for the parent which would ultimately read this story aloud. The sentences are long but they are so perfectly punctuated with commas that, if followed, make some of the most relaxing and easy-flowing words I've ever read to my 6y8m son.
And aside from the readability, the story itself is a very nice one too. This one is probably my most favorite of all the Newbery books we've read so far. The root of the story is a boy who loves his dog and appreciates the life he's been given. Admittedly I don't own a dog and I've been annoyed ore than once at how goofy grown-ups can get over their dogs in today's society. Yet somehow this story endeared itself to me. Perhaps because it was a boy's devotion to the dog so the irrationality can be excused as immaturity. Or perhaps because the time period and setting made it extra interesting. What a concept to present to your child - that in an age with no telephones, much less cell phones or email, if you got separated from someone you might not be reunited for months, after miles of wandering and searching.
It was a time when the primary form of entertainment was not hulu or netflix but minstrels. It was a time when, "After meals the cloths were taken from the tables, ..., the boards were stacked against the wall, the trestles and benches pushed back, and there was room for minstrelsy and dancing, for games of chess or of dice, for talk and laughter. The ladies would withdraw to the room called the solar, above, where they sat long hours over their embroidery, entertained by the gentlemen who came to gossip with them or by the tales that Roger told." (p. 86) When the story opens Adam is a boarding school student while his father, Roger, is in France at minstrel-school. Adam has memories of his mother when he was six but she died sometime after that. Roger picks Adam up, they retrieve his dog from a nearby boarder, and then continue traveling with Roger's new boss and go on the road together during Roger's time off.
Adam is an eleven year old minstrel-in-training and while he was at school he often practiced but, "The masters didn't like it very well, for the church officially disapproved of minstrels' tales. If they heard him they would stop him, or make him tell stories about the saints instead; but oftener they just pretended not to hear him. His stories were about courtesy and chivalry, never the rude fabliaux making mock of holy things that the poorer sort of minstrel told." (p. 16) When we began this book I worried, for about two seconds, that this story about minstrels would be like a front row seat at the circus (not a fan of clowns, either) but this story is so much more than a minstrels' tale. It's a story of hope and love, and endurance, and doing what's right. But, as indicated on page 40, " 'It's a pity there's nothing in this world that's all good,' said Roger, and added philosophically, 'but then nothing is all bad either.' " The story is well set-up, easy to follow and works up to its crescendo at a very nice tempo but I wish that the wonderful explanation of what a minstrel is appeared much, much earlier in the story. Instead we get all the way to page 236 (of 317) before reading, "...mid-November...was a good time for minstrelsy, because nobody could go to sleep so early and the long evenings must be filled in somehow. When a book cost more than a horse and few could read, minstrels' tales were almost the only entertainment. Minstrels brought news, too; they told what was going on int he next town, and what was happening in London, and where the king was."
There are a couple of other small things that could be better explained but aren't really problematic. Apparently in the England of 1294 a "wallet" held a lot more than it does today including, "two silver pennies, the case containing his knife...silver spoon, his comb, and  comfits...wrapped up in a cloth." (p. 44) at other times a wallet holds, "bread and cheese and cold meat" (p. 139). "Comfits" were described as sweet and spicy so apparently were edible. Some other words that might challenge an inexperienced reader or listener are: "lame" in respect to a horses' injury and "lord" as a wealthy land-owner, not the religious figure. There is no glossary but there is a nice map inside the front cover.
There is a small amount of Adam struggling to build new friendships after leaving school where his best friend, Perkin, was. He missed Perkin like, "Roland longing for Oliver, Damon for Pythias, Horn for Athulf: history and romance were full of noble friends grieving because they were separated." (p. 69) I don't recognize these literary references but this was about the only place in the book with a reference so foreign to me. But, of course, I am a college-degreed grown-up - I know these references to works of literature I have not read whereas a child reader would probably just think these were other people Adam knew "off the canvass" and just plow on forward (with no ill effects).
In addition to literary lessons there are also vocabulary lessons in this story. Such as on p. 71 when, "Simon Talbot came through the door in the wall, with his lanneret on his fist. / Adam was pleased to know the word lanneret. Some words were like pets to hi, and especially the new words that Simon was teaching him. A lanneret was the kind of falcon that a squire was permitted to own," (p. 71) and it goes on to identify other types of falcons for other types of people as well as proper words for flocks of birds, differing by species.
There is also a different species of the singing rhyme "London Bridge" in this book. You can see the relation to the modern day version but the version from 1296 might cause a kid to say, "What the heck?" - but as childish games are trivial in the scope of life, so is this difference trivial to the scope of the book.
Much less trivial is the era's attitude towards females demonstrated on page 85, " 'Maybe she'd rather marry Simon,' said Adam. / 'It doesn't matter what she'd rather do,' said Hugh carelessly. 'She's only a girl. She's got to do what she's told.' " Not to worry though, this attitude only lasts for as much of the page as London Bridge did. The attitude does not appear again for the rest of the story.
Another attitude that only made a flash appearance was one isolated rant that Adam had against Roger, and grown-ups in general. There's really no reason for Adam to be so short-tempered when he casually mentions he'd like to actually see just one time the neighbor they've lived next to for two months. Roger asks "why on earth" he'd want to see him and Adam replies, " 'Why, I told you!' Grown-ups were queer, even Roger. if they told you anything, they expected you to remember it forever after, but when you told them something, half the time they forgot it so thoroughly that they did not even remember that they had ever heard it." (p. 96) And that's pretty much the end of it. The rest of the time Adam is full of love, admiration and respect for Roger. Hah - if teens had but one contra-parent rant and then all was well I daresay our society would be in a much better state. personally I can forgive one rant - it does not spoil the book nor the audience. I do wish though that it had not been when Roger was already feeling down due to having lost eh horse and money the night before.
Also appearing en breve is Roger's gambling problem. "The dice-box, it was said everywhere was the ruin of the minstrel." (p. 91) Indeed in one night, the only time we see Roger gamble, he loses all his money (not Adam's) and their horse too! It is precisely the losing of the horse that leads to the losing of the dog as Jankin, the man who won the horse, becomes dissatisfied with the horse he leaves the horse and steals the dog.
On the other hand, there are plenty of moments where you can see what a fine young man Adam is. Such as on page 194 when Adam has been talking and suddenly realizes his audience is tired of hearing him go on about his topic. "He realized that Roger would say he had been bragging. Suddenly he felt very much smaller than usual, and hollow." (p. 194)
One of the parts of the book that made me most uncomfortable was on page 166 when there is a bit about a six year old being a "baby". Perhaps in 1296 they were much less mature. But as I read this to my 6y8m son I was loathe to let on that some people might consider a child of his age a baby. This is precisely the age when kids grapple with beginning to leave behind childish things. Just within the last couple of months we've had a few discussions about whether or not some of his actions or habits are babyish. But, like a lot of sticky spots in this book, it passes quickly and it did not illicit even the smallest response from my child.
In opposition to the attitudes and actions that make brief appearances and then flit away, there is a consistent thread of religion that runs throughout the story. From the religious school where we first meet Adam to the miracle he seeks when he is lost to his attraction to a play about Adam and Eve. Adam definitely has a faith grounded in the Bible and a deep desire to live honestly and do what's right. The occasional reference to a superstition of the time pales in comparison to the numerous examples of religion and providence.
In Chapter 13 there are some suspenseful pages when robbers attack Adam and some companions in the forest. The suspense is very mild and Adam soon saves the day.
Towards the end of the story, when Adam is finally and knowingly within reach of a certain reunion with Roger, he becomes rather ungrateful. Although it's portrayed in a comical way, I personally feel that ungratefulness is never funny - but judge for yourself:
She was a busy, bossy, self-satisfied young thing, tossing her long yellow hair proudly and walking with her stomach out. She had light blue eyes, slightly popped, and a full red mouth which she kept pursed up in a disapproving way. She called Adam "boy" and ordered him to bring her stool or the book off the shelf or to fetch her a comfit from the cupboard, as if she were the lady of the house. Her name meant lamb of God, but to Adam she was just a silly sheep, and not a sheep of God either. he occupied dull moments with thinking up humiliating accidents for her to fall into, which he would see, turning aside to hid his smile; but he contented himself meanwhile with answering her lofty remarks with a derisive "Baa."
It was no way for a minstrel to behave, he realized that, but then at de Lisle House they did not treat him as a minstrel; to them he was a rather tiresome boy who had been left in the bailiff's care. (p. 269)
All in all - I really, really liked this story. I might have nit-picked but I only do that as a responsible reviewer - trying to cover all issues that might be of concern to a particular parent. In general I think that the majority of parents would agree with me that this story should definitely be a part of your child's bedtime story consumption. Especially with the possibilities to discuss:
communication in times long ago
entertainment in times long ago
historical attitudes towards females
respect for parents
finding gratitude in any situation