Jackaroo Discussion Guide
- Grades: 9–12
About this book
Explore the potent themes of Cynthia Voigt's classic novel Jackaroo with these question about time and place and student activities.
To the Teacher
Cynthia Voigt is one of those rare authors who excels in a variety of genres: realistic and historical fiction, mystery, romance, fantasy, and adventure. In Jackaroo, she combines elements of each to produce a novel both appealing and challenging. While the setting embraces an imaginative location simply known as the Kingdom, it reverberates with the language, style, and customs of the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, one of the real strengths of this work is Voigt's refusal to box the story into a specific historical era. Gwyn, Voigt's heroine, plants her steadfast feet firmly in today, yet tempers her actions with the constraints of yesterday. Because of this paradox, the element of fantasy allows her character both believability and depth. And it is character that layers this strong adventure. Gwyn's emerging persona as Jackaroo is the product of a complex journey of self-discovery, all the more authoritative because three others reach the same destination during the course of the novel. Social, political, and economic elements thoroughly infuse plot and characterization, evoking deep, potent themes. Are law and justice the same concept? Do individuals become that which they wish to destroy? Can government be for the people without being by the people? Are class differences fundamental or cosmetic? That these questions come together in one volume without a heavy-handed didacticism marks Voigt's genius.
Born in an unfamiliar time and place, Gwyn has no identity; she is simply known as The Innkeeper's Daughter. Her life holds but two opinions: She can marry and become her husband's wife, or remain single and serve her younger brother. Though limited, Gwyn's future is no bleaker than her present.
Hard times — war, high taxes, crime — blanket the Kingdom. For solace the people turn to the old takes of Jackaroo, a mysterious figure who travels the land leaving coins for the destitute and saving the wrongly accused from hanging. Pragmatic Gwyn dismisses these tales, turning instead to the myriad chores at the Ram's Head Inn.
During the winter a lord and his son appear, demanding the Gwyn and her manservant, Burl, accompany them on a map-making expedition. A blizzard overtakes the small party and Gwyn and the lordling take refuge in an abandoned cottage where they form an unusual friendship born of necessity and boredom. While there, Gwyn discovers the hidden costume of Jackaroo, but keeps her own counsel.
After returning home, Gwyn vows to don the mantle of Jackaroo to ease the people's suffering. Successful on her secret forays, she undertakes her most daring challenge, a public demand that the steward arrest three men guilty of murder. At the hanging, a brash neighbor takes credit for Jackaroo's bravery, and when the steward hunts him down, Gwyn's conscience forces her to come to his defense. But before she can make a move, Burl, dressed also as Jackaroo, diverts the solders' attention, and the two escape. Realizing she cannot return to her former life, Gwyn pleads her case to the lordling who leads Gwyn and Burl to an unused hunting lodge in a distant part of the Kingdom. There they will begin a new life.
Time and Place
- Why is the setting of the book what it is? How does this distant time and place affect the story? How would this novel be different if it were set today? On the Western frontier of America? During the Depression?
- Jackaroo is the first of three books that take place in the Kingdom. What do you learn about the Kingdom's form of government from Jackaroo? How does this view expand in the other books (On Fortune's Wheel, The Wings of a Falcon)?
- Lloyd Alexander has also written a series of books (Westmark, Kestrel, Beggar Queen) set in a mythical kingdom with historical accents. Compare the country of Westmark with the Kingdom, noting features such as the powerful and the powerless, the concept of justice, and the daily lifestyle and leisure activities of the inhabitants.
- Many readers want to place Jackaroo in the Middle Ages. Choose an aspect of that time (for example crafts, trades, clothing, conscription, government) and find out more about it. Choose a variety of materials such as Aliki's A Medieval Feast, Sancha's Walter Dragon's Town, or Biesty's Cross-Sections Castle; or the video recording of Macaulay's Castle. Decide which features of that period are found in Jackaroo and which are not.
- Do you think that Gwyn would be a typical heroine during the Middle Ages? Examine other fictitious heroines from that period by reading The Ramsay Scallop (Temple), Catherine Called Birdy and The Midwife's Apprentice (Cushman), and Captives of Time (Bosse).
- Often, by reading of a different time, we learn about our own. Consider several conditions in this novel such as the Doling Room, Hiring Day, journeying, and the levying and spending of taxes. What contemporary issues relate to these? How are today's debates and concerns similar to those of the Kingdom? How are they different?
Related Student Activities
- Many of Gwyn's hopes and dreams mirror those of contemporary individuals. What do you as the reader have in common with Gwyn? How are your lives different? Which is the most important to you, the commonalities or the differences? Why?
- When she returns from the cabin without the lordling, Gwyn's parents do not defend her. Why does this action hurt so deeply? Should parents always stand up for their children? Read Avi's Wolf Rider and think about the father in this story. Does he betray his son? Which of his actions do you agree with? Do you think he should have acted differently? When? Why?
- While the characters in Jackaroo speak English, they use expressions that differ from contemporary jargon and idiom. Choose a scene where at least two characters interact (such as the time Gwyn and the lordling spend in the cabin or when Gwyn tries to rescue Uncle Wynn) and rewrite the dialogue as you would say it. What kinds of changes did you make? Practice the new scene with a classmate and perform it for other students.
- The character of Jackaroo is reminiscent of another legendary rogue, Robin of Locksley. Find out about Robin Hood through his stories (Robin Hood by Pyle; The Outlaws of Sherwood by McKinley; The Forestwife by Tomlinson; or even the picture-book version, The Adventures of Robin Hood by Williams). What traits do Robin and Jackaroo have in common? How are they different?
- It was against the law for the lordling to teach Gwyn to read and write. Why did the government forbid the people basic educational skills? When has this situation occurred in America? Why?
- There are four Jackaroos depicted in the novel. Discuss and evaluate the motives of each.
About Cynthia Voigt
A mother attends a Renaissance Festival with her daughter. She notices a mock figure hanging on a hilltop. The author records that scene, and Jackaroo is conceived. Although this central image for and of the story is imprinted within a modern recreation of yesterday's fairs, Voigt admits to indulging herself in entirely owning the world of the novel — the language, the names, the implicit and explicit institutions, and the rules. But the strong parallels to contemporary society and its inhabitants come from her belief that the human race does not change. The strong, the weak, the silly, the devout, the generous, and the miserly exist today, just as they did in years past, and just as they will in the future. Like Gwyn, young adults, seeking their own individual places in their world, must decide what it will cost them to be who they want to be. "What masks," asks Voigt, "do we wear? What masks do we want to wear? Do our masks wear us, or do we wear them?"
When beginning a new venture, Voigt asks herself: "Can I do it? Can I pull this off?" For this Newbery Award medallist, ALAN Award recipient, and winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award, the answer is a resounding "Yes." Cynthia Voigt believes that once she writes a novel, it becomes the property of its individual readers. For many, these books become prized possessions, leading to the conspicuous consumption of the language, structure, and themes of literature.