Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Separate Peace: The Betrayal of Maggie Blair by Elizabeth Laird

I thought I had left danger behind when I'd fled the Isle of Bute, but I seemed to have leaped from the cauldron into the fire. In Rothesay they'd wanted to string me up for being in league with the Devil, but here in Kilmacolm you could be hanged for trying to be too close to God.

Why can't I be just ordinary? I wanted to cry out loud. Why does all this happen to me?

When her ill-tempered Granny, the midwife and herbal healer for Scalpsie Bay, is stopped from using folk medicine on a sickly newborn, her warnings are taken as curses and when the child dies, his well-to-do parents accuse her of witchcraft, a capital crime in late 17th century Scotland. Sixteen-year-old orphaned Maggie Blair is also accused by the false testimony of the farmer's servant girl Annie, and only survives by the craftiness of old Tam, her Granny's scoundrel drinking companion, who gets the jailer drunk and helps her escape the island and the gallows which claim her grandmother.

Journeying many miles on foot, Maggie finally arrives at the comfortable farm of her only living relative, her father's brother Hugh Blair in Kilmacolm. Maggie is taken in, warmly by her uncle but grudgingly by his wife, who is appalled at Maggie's upbringing by her wild and slovenly Granny. But Maggie works hard, learning to read and perform the necessary household tasks, and slowly her love grows for her adopted family.

But even this relative comfort has its perils. This is "the Killing Time," in Britain, and the Blairs are staunch Covenanters, strict Calvinists whose compact has defied King Charles II's attempts to dominate them through the re-establishment of the Church of England in Scotland, and their penchant for worshiping with a renegade preacher rather than in the King's church lead to violence and ultimately her uncle's capture and imminent execution in Edinburgh.

As her uncle's family faces persecution and starvation at home, Maggie determines that she must travel to Edinburgh with gold borrowed from a sympathetic laird and attempt to buy back her uncle's freedom. Maggie enlists the loyal Tam to guide her through the dangers of the countryside, filled with local thieves and roaming soldiers for whom young girls are fair game. Thieving, begging, snaring rabbits, and staying with old confederates along the way, Tam uses his ability to charm listeners by playing his pipes to get inside the castle where two hundred Covenanters are held in the dungeon/ With a job in the kitchen, Maggie watches for her chance to help her uncle go free, not knowing whether he will unbend his desire to martyr himself even for a chance to return to his family if that chance arises.

A five-time nominee for Britain's Carnegie Award, author Katharine Laird's forthcoming The Betrayal of Maggie Blair (Houghton Mifflin, 2011) is a page-turning adventure story, an engrossing bit of historical fiction, and a coming-of-age journey for her courageous Maggie, whose instincts struggle with the hard and unforgiving religion of her adopted family, so well contrasted by the flawed kindness she finds in the outcast Tam and others whose instinctive goodness she comes to see as the true path to her own faith.

This is a remarkable novel, told by a master craftsman of the storytelling art, with historical setting and detail intrinsically interwoven with the plot. But the chief glory of The Betrayal of Maggie Blair is in its characters, unforgettable, fallible humans caught up in the religious hatred, superstition, and greed of their own time, who nevertheless 4 rise above and go beyond their setting to shape their lives for the good. As School Library Journal's reviewer says, This is a beautifully crafted novel to be savored for its symbolic language, historical atmosphere, and vivid characters.

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