Monday, April 11, 2011

Book Review: The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, by Elizabeth Laird (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.  

Release date:  April 18, 2011

Witchcraft, whether with a historic or contemporary setting, is a popular subject for young adult novels these days.  British author Elizabeth Laird mines 17th century Scottish history for her engrossing historical fiction novel for teens, The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, published in England last year as The Witching Hour.

Sixteen-year-old Maggie lives with her grandmother in a small Scottish village on the Isle of Bute, both her mother and father having died when she was a small child.  Her grandmother, a scowling, bitter old woman who acts as the village's midwife, believes that she must make the townspeople fear her to survive.  In any era in which everyone believed in the devil without question, it didn't take much to be suspected of being a witch.  When a baby in the village dies mysteriously, the townspeople turn on both her grandmother and herself, charging them with witchcraft, and Maggie must take her chances and flee from the only home and family she has ever known.

She makes her way to a kind uncle and his family, where a different kind of trouble lurks--trouble of a political and religious nature.  Her uncle is a Covenanter--fiercely independent Presbyterians who refused to acknowledge the English king as head of the Presbyterian church in Scotland.  It's a dangerous position, and the king's soldiers are arresting Covenanters and throwing them in prison.  Nonetheless, Maggie thinks she's safe; until Annie, a girl from her village shows up and worms her way into her relatives' affections, with only Maggie realizing that Annie's up to no good.
But even Maggie can't imagine how Annie will betray them all...

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which has a more serious thread to it than many of the YA historicals--despite the witchcraft element, there is little of the paranormal or romance in this book.  The religious controversies of the era may not appeal to young readers looking for a light read, but this may appeal to fans of Christian fiction, since the struggle for religious freedom and the lengths people will go to worship as they please are a major theme of this book.  Does a person's true duty lie in serving God or protecting his family?  The author does an excellent job evoking the Scotland of the 17th century, although perhaps using a more contemporary vocabulary  (always a balancing act in historical fiction) with a lot of "lassies" thrown in for local color.  Maggie is a courageous heroine who young girls will be able to root for while following her many adventures and decisions until she chooses her path.

This book was loosely based on the stories of some of the author's own ancestors, a few of whom appear as characters in this novel.  The book shortlisted for the Scottish Book Trust's Royal Mail Award for Scottish Children's Books, in the older readers category.

Other blog reviews:
Musing of a Book Addict
Bitsy Bling
Lisa is Busy Nerding
Never Gonna Grow Up

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher


Anonymous said...

This book's plot sounded so good when I first saw it. I'm glad to hear that it was a serious historical fiction. Thanks for your review!

Caroline Starr Rose said...

What an interesting book!

Teddy Rose said...

I think this book has a pretty wide appeal with lots of different things in it. As I was reading it, I wondered if a 12 year old would enjoy it as much as an adult. I refuse to read Christian fiction but do believe in religious freedom, so I read it with that point of view. I could see the appeal to people who do read Christian fiction.

Fourth Musketeer said...

I think it's fine for a 12-year old. It starts out a little slow, so if it's a reader that's used to the fast-paced YA books like Hunger Games he or she might not stick with it.