On the cusp of the 14th century, a young English boy spends months at a time waiting for his minstrel father Roger Quartermayne to retrieve him from the abbey of St. Albans. It isn't long after Roger returns from minstrel school in France, however, that Adam loses him again—and not just his father, but his faithful red spaniel Nick, too.
So begins a long trek through Medieval cities, villages, and countryside in which Adam of the Road encounters kindly priests, a fat and kindly merchant, farmers, a robber knight and the honorable young man who brings him to justice, second-rate minstrels who almost get Adam arrested, and assorted other colorful characters.
Throughout his adventures, Adam relies to some degree on his quick wits and athleticism to get out of scrapes, but mostly he relies on the kindness of strangers. And to hear author Elizabeth Janet Gray tell it, there was plenty of stranger kindness to go around in Middle Ages England, more than most readers are likely to believe.
Adam of the Road is about the kindness of strangers, in fact. There's an aspect of Adam learning about growing up, and we get some interesting views of Medieval life, but the one constant theme (stated explicitly many times, and demonstrated on nearly every page) is that people are good at heart and will help others when they can.
While there are certainly kindhearted people in the world, and strangers are frequently helped by them, there are far more whose default setting is selfishness and heartlessness. The Christian perspective is that people are born dead in trespasses and sin, and that even when Jesus saves us we still struggle constantly against our sinful impulses. "Good people" don't really exist, and certainly not in the numbers with which Gray fills her novel.
Even the one bad guy, Jankin, is really just a kind-of-bad-guy without real ill-will who proves himself merely thoughtless and socially clueless. While this might make a nice story for humanists determined to remain optimistic about human nature despite all proof to the contrary, but for the majority of readers it just makes a boring one.
Because there is so little tension in Adam of the Road, there's not much to hold our interest. At over 300 pages it's a pretty long children's novel, and many of those pages are fairly dull. Sure, there's some Medieval culture thrown in for flavor, but overall we just follow Adam from adventure to adventure, knowing that he'll always be helped on his way by kind people.
The chief crime of recent writers is unnecessarily vilification of the Middle Ages; the chief crime of Gray and many more of her generation was unduly scrubbing them. We get none of the squalor, none of the violence, none of the oppression, none of the fear or bawdy laughter or strangeness of that wild time period. Instead, we get modern humanists in old-fashioned clothes.
A measure of earthiness would have helped Adam of the Road; a better understanding of human nature on the author's part would have helped it even more. Without that, we get no tension, no real plot twists, no edge-of-your seat moments, and no real adventure. Readers with a taste for Medieval adventure would be much better off reading Robert Louis Stevenson's thrilling tale of the War of the Roses, The Black Arrow.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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