The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, by Elizabeth Laird. Houghton Mifflin, 2011, 420 pages.
Reading Level: Young Adult, Ages 12-15
Recommended for: ages 14 and up
Bottom Line: Faith and doubt receive honest examination in this story of a teenage Scottish girl accused of witchcraft during the time of the Covenanters.
We meet 17-year-old Maggie Blair walking along the beach of her home, the Isle of Bute, folded into the firth of Clyde. Coming upon a beached whale, she is overwhelmed by its massiveness–and soon by a vision conjured in the rays of sunlight breaking through the ever-present clouds. ‘It’s the Lord Jesus,’ I whispered. ‘He’s coming now to judge the living and the dead!’ Obviously not, but a temporal judgment will soon fall on Maggie and her grandmother Elspeth Wylie, an eccentric old crone suspected of witchcraft. On a trumped-up charge with an avaricious motive behind it, Maggie and Elspeth are imprisoned by their tiny community and sentenced to hang. Rescue comes in the form of Tam, an itinerant piper and long-time friend, but Elspeth refuses to be rescued. Instead, she presses a silver buckle into her granddaughter’s hand, the only memento of Maggie’s deceased father, and urges her to seek refuge with her Uncle Hugh Blair on the mainland. Uncle Hugh is a Covenanter, a man of sweet disposition and generous nature. He welcomes Maggie but later shows the same spirit to Anne, Maggie’s nemesis who shows up with Tam. Anne is purely selfish and carelessly malicious, a dangerous combination at a dangerous time. The Kings’ men are scouring the hills seeking out “traitors” who dare to meet for worship anywhere but the approved church, and when regufee preacher James Renwick offers to hold services in a secluded cove, the stage is set for betrayal.
Since the novel is neither written nor published under a “Christian” label, I kept waiting for the ax to fall and the Covenanters to be exposed as narrow, bigoted joykillers. But Ms. Laird portrays them sympathetically: some are less than admirable, but Hugh Blair is a saint and Rev. Renwick radiates a passion for God that stirs Maggie as nothing has before. But is she among the chosen? Many times, Maggie would like to believe, but doubts intervene. Of a devout neighbor, Maggie thinks, I don’t feel like she does about anything. I wish I did. I don’t care enough about anything to die for it. This is realistic, and so are many of the other characters. Tam is a sentimental sot with a generous heart; Mrs. Blair is suspicious but sincere and well-meaning. Other characters are well-drawn but a tad anachronistic. For example, this from Mr. Lithgow, a cattle drover: “They talk of hell, the preachers. And if it’s in the Bible, I suppose it must be right. But look around you. Creation. Flowers. Birds. The sun . . . If God could make all this, why would he bother to make a hell?” Kind of a non-sequitur, and I think ordinary people of the day were more inclined to believe in hell than not. Also, there may be a trace of 20th-century feminism in Maggie’s concluding resolution. It seems curious that not much is made of her vision of the first chapter; though known as a visionary, she sees not a one for the rest of the story. These are small complaints, though. Good fiction strives to inhabit its own world faithfully, and The Betrayal of Maggie Blair for the most part succeeds.
Cautions: Sensuality (mild), Language (small amount of mild cursing)
Overall rating: 4 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 3.75
- Artistic value: 4
Categories: Historical Fiction, Young Adult, Adults, Religion, Life Issues