Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sneak Peeks with K.E. Weeks: The Betrayal of Maggie Blair

This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.
What first attracted me to The Betrayal of Maggie Blair by Elizabeth Laird ($8.99; Houghton Mifflin Books for Children; April 18, 2011) was the fact that it is set in Scotland in the seventeenth century. My mother moved from Scotland when she was twenty-five, and I have been to several places in the book, so it was a “must read” for me.

The historical novel begins on the Isle of Bute on the west coast of Scotland. Scotland has a lot of isles, and many are rough, wind-swept places. The book contains a nice map of Scotland to help the reader visualize the action as the protagonist traverses the country. Sixteen-year-old Maggie Blair lives in a ramshackle cottage with her grouchy old maternal grandmother who scrapes out a living as the village midwife. When one of the babies she delivers dies, Granny is falsely denounced as a witch, and Maggie is swept up in the accusations as well. Like in the Salem Witch Trials in America, the two are sentenced to hang. Maggie escapes to the mainland and seeks out asylum with her paternal uncle, who is a Covenanter.

For those who may be unfamiliar with them, the Covenanters were Scottish Presbyterians who, in the mid-1600s, refused to swear allegiance to Catholic King Charles II of England as the head of the church. They signed covenants where they swore they would remain true to God as the head of their church. Maggie’s betrayer, a vixen by the name of Annie, follows her across the moors to Maggie’s uncle’s home, where Annie eventually betrays the Covenanters.

Though the book is fiction, it is based on historical fact and the author’s own family ancestry. Maggie’s uncle is based on a real person, Hugh Blair. In 1685, English soldiers threw 122 male and 45 female Covenanters into prison in Dunnottar Castle, including Hugh Blair. They were forced to endure deplorable conditions, packed so tightly that they were unable to sit down and even had to pay for water. Below is a photo of Dunnottar Castle I took while visiting there.
Here is a photo of the one window in the Whigs Vault, the prison where they were kept. The window faces a sharp cliff drop to the North Sea. The ocean spray and the rainy climate blow inside, forcing the prisoners to endure the elements as well as starvation and lack of space. Many of the Covenanters died standing up.
This book provides a lot of fodder for discussion, especially in the area of faith. How far are you willing to go in defense of your faith? Are you willing to endure torture and death? What if your death meant the likely death, from starvation, of your children because you weren’t there to harvest the crops and care for them? The characters in The Betrayal of Maggie Blair are faced with these decisions.

Maggie listens to the famous preacher James Renwick, and thinks on her life as he preaches: “Was it Christ who had rescued me from the gallows and the fire? Or just Tam? [her surrogate grandfather] I knew that I wasn’t pure enough – that I had never been good or faithful enough – to deserve that Christ himself would make such an effort to rescue me. I could believe much more easily in Tam’s love and his delight in making mischief.....Nobody has ever loved me like that. But does Jesus? Is it really true?” This provides a good opportunity to discuss Grace.

The book also deals with moral dilemmas, such as is it ever acceptable to lie? What if you lie to protect an innocent man? What if, to protect yourself and your family, you lie and sign that the King is the head of the church when you really believe it is God? Is that a sin? Are you betraying the First Commandment? The Ninth? There are no easy answers, which makes the discussion edifying.

One of the great things about this book, though, is the fact that it doesn’t beat the reader over the head with these questions. They are woven naturally into the fabric of the story, so that it doesn’t sound pedantic. It would make a great book for a book club or a young adult mother-daughter read aloud. There are parts of the book that move slowly, such as when Maggie is traveling from one part of the country to another or pondering philosophical questions, which might bore impatient readers. However, there is enough action, fighting, and threat of death to keep the story moving along.

The book is well-suited to high schoolers or sophisticated 8th graders. Aside from the aforementioned moral dilemmas, sin is also rampant in the form of adultery and abortion, as well as thievery, all of which are committed by the villain. These transgressions are not described in detail, and they do not detract from the overall respectability of the book. Still, you wouldn’t want to give the book to a 4th grader. For the interesting setting, deep philosophical questions, unique historical period, historically-accurate content, and good dialogue and description, I give this book five stars (out of five).

Disclaimer: The purpose of this review is to guide parents into selecting appropriate, significant, high-quality literature for their teens and tweens. I have no connection with the author or publisher of this book. I am a home educator of two children, 11 and 14, with a keen interest in historical fiction for young adults.


Blossom said...

Great review. This sounds like a book that I would be interested to read.
I especially like that you included the photos from when *you* were in Scotland!

Loving learning at Home said...

Great book review. I, too, love the picture from Scotland. That's great.
God Bless.

Jennifer said...

This looks like an interesting book and I like the ideas for discussion, thanks for the thorough review.