Adventures of a spunky medieval heroine

Jackaroo, Cynthia Voigt. New York: Atheneum. 278 pp. $14.95. CYNTHIA Voigt has put together a combination of setting and character that spells a surefire formula for teen-age readers. Her new novel, ``Jackaroo,'' takes place in a mythical land with medieval trappings, while the heroine is a teen who's more molded by today's feminist views than the dictums of the Middle Ages. Putting this up-to-date miss into an archaic atmosphere makes for lively reading. The heroine shuns the medieval hoe-and-hut routine, opting for life Robin Hood style.

Even though the principal character is a girl, the novel has appeal for male readers, too, because there's a hero (silent and strong -- naturally) who stands in the background, ready to emerge in the nick of time.

The young heroine, Gwyn, spends her days toiling in her father's inn, where soldiers and wayfarers crowd about the tables, wolfing down stew and telling tales of Jackaroo, an outlaw of bygone days who gained fame by championing the downtrodden.

Nobody knows what happened to this swashbuckler -- or if he ever really existed. But most are ready to believe the masked rider really did ride through the countryside and may even ride again. The legend proves therapeutic to peasants plagued by poverty and war. Gwyn listens to the tales, but being a pragmatic lass, she doesn't put much stock in salvation by a legendary Jackaroo.

She sets aside such speculation in deference to work. And it's plain that the innkeeper's daughter is no slacker. She's willing to do more than her share of the drudgery -- scrubbing the oak floors, rubbing down the horses, baking bread and making beds. She doesn't revolt against ``woman's work,'' so to speak. But down deep she's not sure that being the chattel of a man in marriage and raising a brood should be the sum total of a woman's lot.

The reader soon recognizes that Gwyn is not only an independent young woman and a hard worker, but, more important, a compassionate being. And her caring at a time when many find it inconvenient to care foreshadows the unfolding events. The reader is hardly surprised when Gwyn finds the dusty attire of the long-gone Jackaroo hidden in the top of an old cupboard. And, of course, the costume fits.

Fortunately, the author does more than simply stitch together a series of exciting events. Readers can't help but tune in to Voigt's slices of wisdom, so deftly woven into the story fabric. When all seems smooth for the heroine, suddenly she is falsely accused of not caring for her lord's little son, a deed punishable by death. Both family and friends watch as the lord's sword is put to her throat. No family member rises to her defense, in speech or action, even though all know she's innocent. They simp ly stand by, watching, waiting, unwilling to risk their own well-being.

As expected, the heroine clears her name and goes free. But from then on, nothing is ever the same within the family fold. Gwyn continues to love her family. And they continue to love her. But now there's a chink in that chain of family love. ``Betrayal'' blares loudly within each conscience, though no one voices it.

Through this incident, Voigt lets her readers know that love must carry the seal of loyalty, otherwise it's love that's hollow.

Assuredly, the author knows her audience: She's aware that a dilemma among teens today is finding meaningful friendships. So Voigt shows how the heroine drops the criteria of looks, wealth, and conformity to search for companions who view the world as she does, whose standards and values mirror hers.

Throughout, Voigt keeps her story flowing in a smooth style. And readers will appreciate the fast pace of the prose. Some teens, however -- those who like to glean factual tidbits even when reading fiction -- might prefer the story more firmly anchored in a medieval time frame. Although the author draws on the lords and nobles, peasants, hovels, gallows, and the darkness of illiteracy found in the Middle Ages, her scenes are nevertheless fantasy. A more authentic setting would have ushered teen readers through the back door into a fascinating historical period.

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