Book Review: The Betrayal of Maggie Blair by Elizabeth Laird

8665892Title: The Betrayal of Maggie Blair
Author: Elizabeth Laird
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: April 18th 2011
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Rating: 4 stars
Review copy provided by the publisher through Netgalley.

In seventeenth-century Scotland, saying the wrong thing can lead to banishment—or worse. Accused of being a witch, sixteen-year-old Maggie Blair is sentenced to be hanged. She escapes, but instead of finding shelter with her principled, patriotic uncle, she brings disaster to his door.

Betrayed by one of her own accusers, Maggie must try to save her uncle and his family from the king’s men, even if she has to risk her own life in the process.

The Betrayal of Maggie Blair is a strong, powerful book. It has a bit of a rocky start at first, but once you get around page 150 (which is about one third of the 450 page long book), the pace picks up immensly. The writing style isn’t all that decorative – it’s pretty straight forward – but it fits the setting of 17th century Scotland. The greatest downside though is that the book is very long, especially for a book aimed primarily at young adults. I had to read it in several sittings, unable to keep my attention to it long enough to complete it in one try.

The novel tells the story of Margaret aka Maggie Blair. Her parents died several years ago, and now Maggie lives with her grandmother in a small house, with barely enough food to get by. Life is hard, and her grandmother isn’t exactly the most pleasant woman in the entire world. She tries to scare the neighbouring farms so they will not mess with her and her granddaughter – but the effect is aversive, and Granny gets taken into custody for witchcraft, Maggie being dragged along to the prison. An old friend of her grandmother’s, Tam, helps Maggie to escape, but for her grandmother all help is too late: she is prosecuted and eventually hanged. Maggie flees her old home town Brute, and joins some drovers, old friends of her father, who help bring her to Ladymuir, where her Uncle Blair – her only other living relative – and his family live. Although they welcome Maggie into their home, her aunt never warms up to her, and it’s hard for Maggie to fit into the family of devote Presbyterians. When Uncle Blair goes to great lengths to sneak Mr. Redwick – a renounced preacher – to the town, her aunt fears for the worse, and correct, so it seems. The “Black Cuffs”, soldiers of the king appear and take Uncle Blair into custody. Desperate to do something to help, Maggie proposes that she go and save her uncle, whatever the cost.

After trying to summarize what happens in the book, I realize that a lot of stuff actually happens. On the one side, there’s Scotland in the grasp of witchcraft trials, and on the other side, there’s the Presbyterians refusing to swear the oath that says the King is supreme. It is a time of terror, and Maggie Blair is an excellent example of what all these terrors can do to a person. When we first meet Maggie she’s a timid young girl who fears her grandmother’s occasional loss of temper and fits. She wants people to like her grandmother, although it is quite clear that they don’t, and it doesn’t help that she’s behaving rather peculiarly as well. We see Margaret as a girl who tries to blend in, who desperately wants to be loved, and who would do anything if people would just like her. Rather than that, people’s hatred for the little girl expand as she is brought to trial alongside her grandmother and a wicked servant girl named Annie testifies, not only against Granny, but against Maggie as well.

As we follow Maggie on her way to her Uncle Blair’s house, we see her grow in courage. She sheds the timidity and fear, and learns to depend no longer on her grandmother, but solely on herself. While at first I was not that fond of her as a character, I grew fonder of her as time progressed. By the time Maggie reaches her Uncle Blair’s farm she is still a quiet girl who keeps a lot to herself, but she is also capable of standing up for herself and the people she loves, and she has more courage in her heart than a lot of people much older than she is. She blends in well with the family, fully accepted by her cousin Richie and her little neice Martha. However, her aunt does not warm up to her. Unfortunately, the reason for that is never explained in the novel, because it did make me curious as to why. Yet again, Maggie is unable to find what she craves for: a person who truly loves her.

Later on in the book, we see Maggie meet that person, in the form of an enemy soldier. Although his caring for her is genuine, Maggie is unable to return it, because she has realized by this time that she no longer needs to be loved. I’m pretty certain that the Maggie we see early on in the book would not have said no, but would have embraced the affections whole-heartedly. The Maggie we see by now, is independent enough not to rely on other people’s love anymore. She no longer needs their approval. It’s a total transformation, but it happens gradually and slowly, and thus it’s all the more clear to the reader. I loved Elizabeth Laird’s characterization, and how she turned Maggie from a timid and fragile little girl into an independent, strong young woman.

I enjoyed the other characters as well. Maggie’s grandmother might be a scary woman, and she certainly tries to scare everyone, but her motives are honest and understandable, which made me all the more sympathetic towards her. Uncle Blair is a devote man, passionate about his love for God and the Bible and god-knows-what-else. He’s a bit over the top really, willing to give his life as a martyr for the cause, without taking a pause to think long and hard about what the consequences would be for his family. In that perspective, he is really not the loyal, trustworthy man we at first deem him to be: he is blind in his belief, ignorant towards the people who truly need him. Maggie seems to be the only one who truly grasps these two aspects of his personality, and yet she loves him nevertheless. Tam, the vagabond extraordinarie who shows up whenever someone needs him, is an interesting and intriguing character as well. He believes in the goodness of people, he has no religion but tries to be fair to everyone, and he hates war. He actually learns Maggie some values in life that she ought well to learn. In a way, he knows more about spirituality and goodness than even devote Uncle Blair does.

The storyline isn’t very original. There have been tons of books about Witchcraft, and probably just as many about people rebelling against oppression from a foreign Lord or King. However, what I did find refreshing and innovative, was the mixture of these two themes – who don’t seem to go together at first – in one novel. For one of the first times in historical fiction, we see a total view of the 17th century Scotland. We see ignorant farmer’s people prosecuting witches at trials and we see Presbyterians trying to rebel against King Charles II. It’s an interesting era to write about really.

When I read the Epilogue and realized that the entire story is actually based on Elizabeth Laird’s own heritage, and names she came across when searching for her ancestor’s history, one of them being accused of Witchcraft, and the other held hostage in a prison for Presbyterians, I found the story all the more interesting. I love it when authors focus on their own history, their own heritage, and then write historical fiction about that. It reminded me vaguely of The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent, a story about witchcraft based on Kathleen Kent’s own heritage as well.

On the downside, I’m still convinced that the book is a bit too lengthy. It could have had a faster pace from the start had several pages been cut and left out. The biblical references, especially the continuous mention of prayers, made the book drag along a bit here and there. I can understand why adding a prayer to make it feel real, but does that have to be every other page?

All in all, The Betrayal of Maggie Blair is a nice book for those who love historical fiction and witchtrials. It is a bit lengthy and has a rocky start, so beware of that. It wasn’t at all what I expected – I had expected more paranormal, and a larger focus on the witchtrials – but it’s a nice read and gets really interesting after a while. The character of Maggie is amazing and her personal growth is very impressive. Although the storyline isn’t the most original one in the world, Elizabeth Laird gives a nice spin to it with intriguing characters with their own views of the world around them. Definetely worth a try.

Comments

  1. This looks soo creepy and eerie. Thanks for sharing and great review. Don’t be a stranger; stop by my blog and say hi! I’m not sure if we’re fellow followers, but I follow you!

    Looking forward to hearing back from you,
    Cory @ Anti-Drug Reads

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