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adam of the road

1 december 2014

Elizabeth Janet Gray Vining led a long and fascinating life, including a tragic young widowhood and later, several years as tutor to the crown prince of Japan who would become the present Emperor Akihito. But the business of children's literature being what it is, her fame is now heavily concentrated into a single text, the pleasant but lightweight novel Adam of the Road, which won the 1943 Newbery Medal.

I've noted before how the Newbery Medal, not very explicably, has gone every so often to tales of the Middle Ages. These books have little topical relevance, even by analogy, to the modern world, and are, as a group, quite undistinguished members of the Newbery canon. In fact, that's probably why they win. They upset nobody, they provide competent exposition about the past in the guise of an old-timey yarn, and they aren't going to draw either conservative outrage or liberal resistance.

Most of the plot momentum in Adam of the Road is generated by the title character looking for his missing dog. If you're like me, as soon as the dog goes missing – heck, as soon as the dog is introduced – you turn to page 317 to find Adam "happy and sturdy and tall … with his dog at his side." Whew, there went my worries. But there went what mild suspense the book was about to generate, too.

Adam of the Road spends its first hundred pages in unhurried exposition of what things were like in 1294 – abbeys and castles, knights and squires, tilting in the tiltyard, and the like. Any minor dramatic tensions are soothed away as soon as aroused, so as to conserve the reader's energies for the chase after the lost dog.

While looking for Nick (the dog), Adam also becomes separated from his father. This allows him to comb England and catalogue every possible medieval custom and lifestyle. Robbers steal Nick's harp, and he sets a bailiff on them; I was hoping for some Robin-Hoody action, but the robbers have no intention of giving to anyone but themselves, and the bailiff is a stand-up guy. I have to note, though nothing much happens in the novel, that Gray resists having the characters meet famous people and witness world-historical events. Nothing is cornier than a historical novel where the protagonist is continually meeting Robin Hood or Abraham Lincoln – not that one could meet both in the same novel, outside of Jasper Fforde, but you know what I mean.

The plot continues to wander as Adam wanders, though as I say, the whole thing is pleasant enough. I don't keep reading books I find a waste of time, and I finished this one. Though I can't exactly say that Adam of the Road improves one's time, it has probably instilled an interest in the Middle Ages, or in English history generally, into more than one young reader during the past 70 years.

Gray, Elizabeth Janet. Adam of the Road. Illustrated by Robert Lawson. New York: Viking, 1942.