The Door in the Wall
Marguerite de Angeli (1950)
Read to: 3rd - 4th grade
Read independently: 5th - 6th grade
This is the story of ten year old Robin. Presumably he is the child of two loving parents who are seemingly of some means but whom have both gone off to serve the country. It is a time of war and plague which has called Robin's father to battle and his mother to the Queen's service. They had planned for Robin to go into training to be a knight but before the escort could pick him up he was stricken with some inexplicable malady which rendered him lame.
Throughout the book there are small glimpses of life in this time period, short passages detailing how women spent their time with hand and needle work. And what its like to be in a castle surrounded by an enemy. But most of the story focuses on Robin and his progress. If you wanted to study life in this time period - this is not the book for you - you'd get more from Adam of the Road. but if you want to read about a young boy's personal growth and development - this is a good book. Johnny Tremain was a good combination of historical and personal - but set in Colonial America, not Medieval times.
Early on he shows his temper with the servants, particularly when disappointed with the food presented him. He learns a quick lesson though! The servant leaves saying, "No more will I serve thee." (p. 10) Most readers, and probably Robin too, would see this as an empty threat but indeed she never returns. She and the other servants are stricken ill or leave so as not to become ill. At least she still had the good conscience to leave word at the church as to Robin's situation.
Brother Luke takes Robin to st. Mark's and nurses him as best he can. This is not just nourishment and lodging but exercising Robin's mind, body and spirit. Robin is much more complacent when Brother Luke brings him food he dislikes and he makes tremendous progress with Brother Luke such as he never would have made at home.
Brother Luke teaches Robin to carve and Robin experiences great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment at making a toy for himself,reflecting that every other toy he ever had was made by one of his father's servants. I sincerely hope that young readers have already gained enough life experience to appreciate this reflection.
And surely they already know the unconditional love of a parent such that they could not identify with Robin's concern that his parents won't love him as a cripple. As for his Heavenly Father, Brother Luke directs Robin in prayers saying, "...in thy mind know thou'rt on thy knees. Forget not to be thankful for all thou hast. Remember thy lady mother and Sir John, thy father, ..." (p. 25)
Considering all that has befallen him at his age - Robin really handles it all quite well, although he does have his moments of frustration, like the day he was carving and:
The sharp chisel slipped and cut a gash across the longer piece of the cross. It broke.
Away flew the other piece as far as Robin could throw it, and after it went the chisel, narrowly missing Brother Matthew's head. Robin's face was drawn into a black cloud of anger, and if he had been able, he would have stormed out of the garden. But he was bound to stay where he was, so he took out his anger in words.
"Treacherous misguided tool!" he shouted. "I'll have no more of you!"
Brother Matthew looked up in astonishment. " 'Tis not the tool that is at fault, but thine unskilled hands,' he said quietly.
"If thou'rt to learn to use it, patience and care are better teachers than a bad temper."(p. 28)
Robin does become skilled - skilled enough to make his own crutches.
The title of the book has a lot of meaning that it gains as the story goes on. The first reference is when Brother Luke tells Robin, "even thy crutches can be a door in a wall." (p. 38) While waiting for the crutches to be made, Brother Luke begins taking Robin for a daily swim to strengthen his muscles. The swimming also comes into play later int he story.
In addition to swimming and carving, Robin also learns to read and write such that he is able to correspond with his father - obviously providing him much relief and helping his abandoned situation tremendously. It is arranged that Brother Luke and John-go-in-the-Wynd will transport Robin to his godfather's house, Sir Peter de Lindsay, as was originally planned. They undertake the journey on a horse named Bayard which I recall to be the same name as the horse in Adam of the Road - what a coincidence (or a popular name for horses of the time). On the way they choose the wrong fork in the road and handle it so gracefully with the "good friar" saying, "So it goeth. God grant we may never be worse off than now when we take the wrong turning." (p. 53) The journey continues without incident and when concluded Brother Luke gives thanks to God.
When Robin apologizes to his godparents that he will not make a good page, Sir Peter says "Each of us has his place in the world... If we cannot serve in one way, there is always another. If we do what we are able, a door always opens to something else." (p. 71) Sometime after their arrival Robin asks Brother Luke if he thinks he'll ever "straighten" and Luke responds, "God alone knows whether thou'lt straighten or no. I know not. But this I tell thee. A fine and beautiful life lies before thee, because thou hast a lively mind and a good wit. Thine arms are very strong and sturdy. Swimming hath helped to make them so, but only because thou hast had the will to do it. fret not, my son. none of us is perfect. It is better to have crooked legs than a crooked spirit. We can only do the best we can with what we have. that after all, is the measure of success: what we do with what we have." (p. 76)
And do he does! Robin winds up going on a mission through the door in the wall, to save the castle. In the end Robin is re-united with his parents and receives an award from the King for his service, so he feels satisfied that he made his parents proud. As the mother of a 7yo boy, and a parent in general, I was a little disappointed when Robin, with Adam Bowyer, sees his parents approaching the castle. He exclaims with joy that the wars have ended and his father is safe but feels, "He must say nothing about his mother, for fear Adam would think him babyish." (p. 115)