A friend from long ago visited me last weekend. It had been years since we’d met, and I’d nearly forgotten the lessons he’d taught me. His patiently carved cross, his determination, his love for king and country — these and many other virtues did I study while adventuring alongside Robin de Bureford, only child of Sir John de Bureford and the Lady Maud.
Let me introduce you to my friend Robin, this noble son of England. When Robin was ten years old, his father left to fight the Scots, and shortly after, his mother was called away to serve the queen. Robin himself was to be sent to live with Sir Peter de Lindsay, to begin training for knighthood, when, suddenly, he became quite ill. Plague was ravaging his medieval town of London, but this was not what ailed him. No, this disease settled in his legs, which were now “like two sausages. Bent ones.” He was bedridden and alone, his servants having fled through fear of the plague, when God’s providence sent Brother Luke to Robin’s rescue. The good brother took Robin to his abbey, where he cared for him and helped him regain his strength and fight off despair. For Robin worried often that he would never walk again and feared his parents’ rejection if he could not become a knight. What said Brother Luke to these fears? “Always remember that thou hast only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it.”
Marguerite de Angeli introduced these characters to the world in 1949, bringing them to life through her clear, simple prose and beautifully detailed illustrations. These illustrations are scattered throughout the book and capture the growth in strength and character of Robin; the merry John-go-in-the-Wynd; the kindly Brother Luke; as well as smaller, charming vignettes of a loyal dog or a musical “Amen.”
Though simply told, there is nothing simple about this rich story. The book details Robin’s maturing from an impatient, immobile child to a determined youth by dint of Brother Luke’s wise care and Robin’s own tenacity. De Angeli’s story makes clear that, no matter the circumstance, everyone has a role in life that must be completed to the best of his abilities. And as John-go-in-the-Wynd says to Robin, “Thou canst but try. Anyone can not do it.” A straightforward message, to be sure. But imagine the impact on a child’s mind to hear this. Imagine him struggling with Robin to master patience while learning to carve. Imagine him stopping with Robin to pray and ask God for aid or to give Him thanks. Imagine him learning fortitude through long journeys and trials alongside Robin. These lessons are not preached, but they truly come to life.
De Angeli did not start out as an illustrator. In fact, it wasn’t until she met her mentor, Maurice Bower, in 1921, that she even began to study this art form. Born Marguerite Lofft in 1889 in Lapeer, Mich., de Angeli spent most of her childhood in West Philadelphia. She studied music, becoming a professional singer at the age of 15, but was persuaded by her parents not to pursue a performance career. In 1908, she met a fellow musician, the violinist John Dailey de Angeli (known as “Dai”), and they were married in 1910. Owing to John’s job, the couple moved frequently, bringing with them their ever-growing family. De Angeli began taking illustration commissions in 1922, but it wasn’t until after the birth of her sixth child that she published her first book, Ted and Nina Go to the Grocery Store. She would go on to write over 20 other books and illustrate numerous others. After hearing that The Door in the Wall had received the 1950 Newbery Medal, de Angeli was overjoyed. This joy is abundantly clear in her Newbery acceptance speech, which gives readers insight into the author’s mind:
I have always wanted to draw and to write. Even now, I can remember the way it felt to be walking home from school in the small Michigan town where I was born, arm in arm with a school girlfriend, only half listening to her chatter because I was dreaming of something else; wondering how I could put down in words the sheer joy in living which filled me to bursting, or how I could draw the moving shadows, the sunlight sifting through the leaves, the tree branches against the white house, or the stream of boys and girls themselves. How could I grasp that shining and elusive “something” which was away and beyond, yet was within me, and fairly lifting me off the earth? How could I, all at once, do the many things I wanted to do? I wanted to sew grown-up clothes for my doll, I wanted to make hats, I wanted to learn what we used to call “recitation,” and I wanted to sing. What to do first?
Usually, such vague strivings ended in my doing nothing, but sometimes I would draw furiously for weeks. At those times, nothing resembling paper was sacred from my pencil. The curlicues in the wallpaper needed only elaboration to bring out the faces I saw there. The smooth fly leaf in a treasured book invited my pencil, or the back of a photograph looked tempting — anything that happened to be at hand.
Then quite suddenly, the urge to draw would end; a period of writing would take its place. If Louisa Alcott could write a book one could read over and over again, and yet have the story about a plain American family, perhaps I could write one, too. But it always seemed as if the pictures came first and the writing was an outgrowth of them.
De Angeli’s light use of olden-day language is lilting and skillful, giving color and depth to the tale. Thees, thous, dosts, and ayes fill the mind of the reader, bringing her fully into the story. While it is appropriate for middle and younger grades (though it can be a charming read for any age), it beautifully balances adventure and fears with success and joy, keeping readers wholly engaged in Robin’s journey. And it is a journey of many dimensions, from physical to spiritual, one that becomes clearer with every subsequent read.
This enchanting, short book is a gentle reminder that God’s ways are not our ways, but oh, what incredible plans He has in store for us!