A fast-paced, intriguing account of the failed Peasant Revolt in 14th-century England: First-novelist Zelitch provides a rendering that is evocative and plausible, as well as convincing in its historical sweep. Jack Straw (given name, Michael Row) is one of the leaders of the revolt; it is his confession, offered as he waits his turn on the scaffold, that structures the book (Zelitch uses what is known about the Revolt—not much—and invents freely). Straw is a troubled man, with a crippled sister Jenny (``I want Heaven now. I want Heaven on Earth!'') and a gift for storytelling (his allegorical folk tales are set throughout the narrative). Parson John Ball takes him on as an apprentice and teaches him to read, promising him that he'll be ``his second voice.'' But when Ball is imprisoned and made a freeman claimed as a serf by a feudal lord, unorganized agitation coalesces. Straw writes a petition to the lord, whereupon a group of peasants marches first to Rochester Castle to lay siege and free the serf and, eventually, on to London. Straw becomes a hero despite himself (``I'd come to Rochester for the sake of a friend, but I'd go on for the sake of myself'') as they gather followers—all impoverished in a post- plague landscape and fancying themselves Robin Hoods, vowing allegiance to King Richard, rather than to his uncle John, whom they blame for their troubles. Zelitch offers a satisfying variety of incident, with enough texture and historical detail—costume, festivity, songs—to evoke the medieval milieu. The Middle Ages are rendered not on silver platters or thrones but on the dusty roads and straw beds of peasants, who are given center stage here, not limited to comic relief.
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