Buying this book, first published in 1949, was a happy accident. I picked it up at a used book sale, saw the author’s name – Marguerite De Angeli – and mistook her for author Madeleine L’Engle, whose work I admire. Wrong award winning writer. But on second thought, there’s nothing wrong with the way Marguerite De Angeli tells a story.
The novel is set in about 1349, towards the end of the bubonic plague pandemic known as the Black Death. Ten-year-old Robin, son of Sir John de Bureford and Lady Maud, had been left in the care of servants when his father was off fighting the Scottish wars, and his mother was summoned to be a lady-in-waiting for the Queen. Robin was to stay at home until John-the-Fletcher came to take him to be a page for Sir Peter de Lindsay and his family.
Right after his mother left, Robin was stricken with an ailment that left him weak and unable to use his legs. Most of the servants had run off for fear of the plague, but Dame Ellen remained to give basic care – until fretful Robin flung away the bowl of porridge she had prepared for him. Then the poor woman, who would soon die of the plague, left helpless Robin on his own. She had been struggling to continue her duties, though weakened with illness, but would no longer cook for a boy who refused to eat what she prepared.
A monk named Brother Luke came to take Robin to St. Mark’s, where he would be cared for. When Robin asked how a boy with useless legs could make such a journey, Brother Luke told him to remember he had only to follow a wall far enough and he would find a door. Robin promised to remember, but didn’t know what the brother meant.
The boy was dressed in warm clothes, carried down to a horse, and rode to St. Mark’s, where he was fed and washed, but left alone for long hours, for the monks were caring for all the poor who were sick.
Brother Luke lent Robin his knife, and provided soft pine for whittling. Robin grew interested in carving a toy boat, and discovered that having something to work at and think about was good medicine.
He was shown how to use carpenter’s tools, began learning how to read and write, and was taught to swim. Robin was able to utilize his growing woodworking skills and make a pair of crutches, so he would not have to be carried from place to place.
Robin learned that every skill he mastered provided a “door in the wall” – if he tried hard enough he would be able to find a way through his obstacles.
After many months a minstrel named John-go-in-the-Wynd came with a letter from Robin’s father. Robin was to travel with Brother Luke and John, to reside with Sir Peter de Lindsay, who had been wounded in battle.
When they arrived at the castle where Sir Peter and his family was staying, Brother Luke devised a schedule of both work and study for Robin. Though the weather was turning colder the boy was taken to the river for a daily swim.
One evening the Welsh attacked, and when the walls of the town had been breached the townspeople rushed to the castle for safety. After several days the well began to go dry, and Sir Peter feared they would have to surrender the castle if a messenger couldn’t slip past the Welsh and go for help.
Robin came up with a plan for swimming the river and passing himself off as a crippled shepherd boy, until he reached John-go-in-the-Wynd, who was visiting his aged mother. It would be both dangerous and exhausting, but once John knew of the attack he could fetch a local nobleman and his men to save the castle.
Brave Robin was able to make the difficult trek, help arrived, and the Welsh were routed.
On Christmas Eve a company of knights and men at arms, led by King Edward III, rode towards the castle. Within the company was Robin’s father and mother. What would his parents think about a son who had to hobble about on crutches?
The Door In the Wall allows the reader to journey to a long-ago time, skillfully showing day-to-day life and customs. At first Robin is haughty and impatient, but under the care of the brothers at St. Mark’s he learns humility and patience. The improvement is believable, and not a sugar-coated Sunday School lesson.
The novel has delightful illustrations created by the author, so you know you’re seeing the characters the way they are supposed to look. (I’ve seen many a book illustration that showed the artist didn’t bother to read the manuscript before starting to draw.)
The book is still in print and readily available. It touches on the plague and war, but you never “see” either – they stay in the background. This would not be a good choice for someone wanting non-stop adventure.
You do see a boy expand his abilities after a devastating illness, and learn there are many ways to serve his king and country. If you believe admirable characters are an important part of a story, you should enjoy The Door In the Wall.