Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Betrayal of Maggie Blair Book Review

Author: Elizabeth Laird. Release date: 2011. Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin. ISBN: 9780547341262.
Annotation:  In seventeenth-century Scotland, sixteen-year-old Maggie Blair narrowly escapes execution after being accused of witchcraft in her hometown on the Isle of Bute. Now, unable to return home, she seeks out her uncle and his family in the town of Ladymuir, only to discover that danger has followed her.
Personal thoughts:  My expectations of this novel were so different from my experience reading it that, at first, I wasn’t sure what to think. The story is very well written and full of Scottish dialogue that makes for a really authentic read. I also found Maggie to be an interesting character. My primary issue with the novel is that it is somewhat slow and, therefore, not likely to be appreciated by a young adult audience. As a historical fiction novel for adults, I think it is wonderful. I would have a hard time recommending it to most teens, however, as I think this time period and setting would not really resonate with them.   
Plot summary: Life in seventeenth-century Scotland is not easy for sixteen-year-old Maggie Blair. An orphan, Maggie was raised from an early age by her Granny, a hot-tempered and cantankerous old woman, in a cottage on the Isle of Bute. Granny has managed to make enemies of most of the residents of Bute, many of whom believe she is a witch. In the midst of a society full of religious turmoil, Maggie suddenly finds herself and Granny on trial for witchcraft. In order to escape execution, Maggie flees Bute to live with her uncle, Hugh Blair, and his wife and children on their farm on the mainland in a town called Ladymuir. Maggie is unaccustomed to life off the island, but is happy to be free of the danger that awaited her on Bute. Her peaceful new life in Ladymuir doesn’t last long, however, when Annie, a girl her age who testified against her in her trial on Bute, arrives at the farm. Uncle Blair and his family are charmed by Annie, who claims that she has come to repent for her false accusations on Bute, but Maggie is not convinced. Can she maintain her new existence in Ladymuir, or has the danger of her past followed her across the waters of the Scottish coast?
Review:  Part fiction and part memoir, Laird’s historical novel The Betrayal of Maggie Blair offers a slow but ultimately interesting story about a period of time not often featured in stories for young adults. Most readers, both teen and adult, will find themselves learning a great deal about seventeenth-century Scotland and the religious fervor that was sweeping Great Britain at that time. Although the novel does include elements that will resonate with those familiar with the Salem Witch Trials, the majority of the story focuses on the Covenanters: a group of Presbyterians who’s refusal to acknowledge the English king as head of the church earned many an untimely death. Maggie’s story serves primarily as a way for the author to present an in-depth history lesson into what is likely an unfamiliar era for American readers. In the epilogue, Laird mentions that Hugh Blair, Maggie’s uncle, was actually a real person who actually lived in Ladymuir in the late 1600s. Other characters in the story are also historical figures, making the novel a blend of fact and fiction. Although the story is slow, especially in the beginning, it ultimately provides an interesting look into the past that patient readers will enjoy.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Reading level: Grade 8+
Similar titles: N/A
Themes:  Scotland, seventeenth-century, religion, witchcraft, family relationships, betrayal.  
Awards/Reviews:  Starred review from School Library Journal, positive reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus.
Series Information: N/A
Discussion questions:
- Research the living conditions of seventeenth-century Scotland. What would Maggie’s everyday life have been like?
- What did you learn about the “Covenanters” from this novel? Research how this group impacted religion in Great Britain.
- Why do you think this novel is called The Betrayal of Maggie Blair? Who do you think betrayed Maggie the most?
- Do you think that Granny was a good parent to Maggie? Why or why not?
- Would you have done what Maggie did to help her Uncle? Why or why not?
- Why do you think violence is often part of religious history?

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