HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Calico Captive
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Illustrator: W. T. Mars
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, reissued in 2001
Language level: 1 (nothing objectionable)
Reading level: Ages 11 and above
Rating: 4 stars (GOOD)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Speare, Elizabeth George. Calico Captive (originally published in 1957 by Houghton Mifflin). Having previously read and liked two other books by Elizabeth George Speare, The Sign of the Beaver and The Bronze Bow, I also wanted to read her Calico Captive, Speare’s first novel which one an American Library Notable Book award, back in the days when the ALA was awarding the prize to truly good literature. The action takes place beginning in 1754, on the brink of the French and Indian War and is based on a true story. James Johnson of Charlestown, NH, his wife Susanna, their three children (with a fourth born during the story), and Susanna’s teenage sister Miriam Willard, were captured by Indians, sold to the French in Montreal, and held there for ransom. Years afterward, when she was almost seventy years old, Mrs. Johnson wrote an account of this ordeal, Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson, and it is from her story that the main events of the book are taken. The imagined adventures of Miss Willard, as they might have happened, form the plot of Calico Captive. Thus, it is historical fiction. Calico Captive contains a great deal of history and would be an excellent book of historical fiction to read in connection with the period of colonial and world history dealing with the time of the French and Indian War. It even makes mention of the initial French and Indian victory over Gen. Braddock which may refer to the ambush near Fort Duquesne in which Braddock was killed and only the quick thinking of Lt. George Washington kept it from being a total massacre.
Our friend Holly Melanson wrote, “After Wayne’s review on The Sign of the Beaver, I checked it out from the library and read it. I, too, really enjoyed it and was encouraged to read Speare’s other books. Calico Captive was one of the books I checked out and read. As Wayne’s review said, it was her first novel and I don’t think it’s her best. I read afterwards that it is supposed to be based on a true story which I found surprising. Not that the events which she wrote about couldn’t have happened, but that they could have happened to one person in such rapid succession! To me, the book didn’t have any flow to it and characters were introduced and then just dropped without any development at all. Only the main character seemed to remain constant, her selfish and vain character punctuated with grudging good deeds once in a while. Although it was an interesting subject to read about, the capturing of New World inhabitants by Indians, their subsequent sale to the French and stay in Montreal while France and England were at war, I had a hard time liking the heroine. The one thing that did change in her was her view on religion. Raised a strict Puritan, she spurned the ‘savages’ and early on in the book the Catholic faith, being taught the papacy was wrong. While in Montreal, she decides that it can’t be all that bad if they’re treating her nieces so well.”
I will certainly agree that Calico Captive is not the best of Mrs. Speare’s books. It is interesting that the other three did win awards but this one did not. This may well have been the result of the fact that sometimes the action lagged a bit, though other times it picked up. In defense, one might argue that in historical fiction, the more historical a writer tries to be, the more the plot and character development will depend on events beyond his control. It is true that in the early part of the book, Miriam Willard is selfish and vain, and as such is difficult to appreciate at times. However, what I saw as I read the book was her learning from her experiences and growing to accept responsibility not only for her own actions but also for the care of others as well, even if her behavior was imperfect now and then. Her change of view on religion does bring up an interesting question. How should we feel about and treat those whom we believe to be religiously wrong, such as the Indians and Catholics? Should we think of them as enemies to be hated, or should we see them as people who, though misguided, are still our fellow human beings deserving of our respect and kindness even though we may disagree with them and realize that they are lost? This is one of the lessons that I found could be learned from the book. With the understanding that this is an imperfect book from many standpoints (there are also some dancing and drinking, but no bad language), I still enjoyed the book and believe that it can be used for beneficial reading.