Book Review: Calico Captive

This is my second year teaching Literature/Language to a home school co-op class of middle schoolers. Of course, last year was rudely interrupted in March by a pandemic, and this year we are going to begin on Zoom. Anticipating that I will be teaching this for three years total, I have decided to step up my performance from last year’s wide-eyed, scatter-brained (but funny) English teacher to an organized, crazy-about-language, poetry-performing English teacher. (Zoom is not going to be my friend.) The basic curriculum is given to me, but it consists almost entirely of learning to write. Which is great, but I am adding in grammar this year and also emphasizing reading, as well. To that end, I am requiring the novels and reading them ahead of the students so that I can actually teach them. Since this year my students are taking Modern World History, their Language assignments will coincide with this time period. Their first book is Calico Captive, and I finished reading it (and taking notes) yesterday.

Calico Captive is a middle grades historical fiction novel by Elizabeth George Speare. Written in the 1950s, it takes place in the 1750s during the French and Indian War. It is based on an actual journal of a woman who was abducted by Native Americans from her home in New Hampshire with her family. The family was then largely later sold to the French in Montreal, piece-meal, and then reunited after months (or years) of imprisonment. The novel is told from the perspective of the journaler’s younger sister, who is abducted with them. She is a teenager whose thoughts are on dresses, dances and a boy when she is woken in the night by screaming and is forced on a weeks-long trek through the woods, during which her sister has the fourth of her children. Miriam greatly admires the older sister who is raising her, and is unceremoniously taken from her back and forth over the rest of the story. Miriam makes enemies, makes friends, grows considerably, and changes the way she looks at the world as she struggles to regain control of her own destiny and get back home with all of her family.

Um. I have mixed feelings about this book. It was interesting. I kept reading it, kept wanting to read it. I like history, and this book appears to be well-researched and really immerses the reader in the world. It’s not historically confusing, either, because it just gives one girl’s story and so helps the reader better understand the colonial period, New England, the French and Indian War, and interactions with Native Americans, to begin with. Then again, I’m not sure the ending is very satisfying. It’s hard to say if it’s the right ending, based on Miriam’s thoughts and actions throughout the book. I bet a lot of people would have had it end differently. Speaking of Miriam, she’s sometimes a tough pill to swallow. On one hand, I can celebrate that her faults are on display, helping us feel her humanity and our own failures, as well as watching her grow. But it’s difficult to read a book with such overt prejudices (against Native Americans, against the French, and against Catholics), even if it is historically accurate. Uncomfortable. Maybe if I had known she was going to eventually challenge some of her basic assumptions, I would have felt a little less uncomfortable. And it’s not just her prejudices that make Miriam difficult to swallow. It’s also her immaturity. Again, if I had known this was going to be a coming of age story, I would have relaxed a little bit, maybe.

I have a few other random observations: it is more of a girl book than a boy book, which I am actually happy about because the vast majority of what we read for class last year was geared more toward boys. While having an element of adventure, Calico Captive is replete with fabric and fashion, high society and even motherhood (obliquely). There’s an element of romance, too. And I was not a fan of the illustrations. While the cover is really nice, the illustrations date back to the 1950s’ publication and they have that 50s feel to them, which I thought didn’t make sense with the 1750s content or the modern audience.

So I would recommend this book. I can understand why you would assign it in a class, both to engage the kids and teach history at the same time, as well as have some discussion on ethics. It’s going to have to involve some talk about prejudice/racism and real history, but it will also immerse the kids (and yourself) in a time and a place that personally, I haven’t thought too much about (as in the colonial period reservations and colonial French Canada). The writing is clean except for some old-fashioned turns of phrase, the plot pretty good except for that bit at the end that seemed not foreshadowed or not concluded well enough. You want to like the main character and she has her charms, though there are also moments when you’re not so sure about her. Maybe that’s part of the point. It’s not the fancy writing that will impress you, it’s the history-come-alive. Will Miriam choose to return to the life she always thought was her destiny, now that she could choose something else?

 OTHER BOOKS BY ELIZABETH GEORGE SPEARE:

  • The Bronze Bow
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond
  • Sign of the Beaver
  • as well as a nonfiction book about child life in the colonies and a book for adults, The Prospering.

QUOTES:

“But her thoughts could not be tucked in to sleep” (p10).

“There’s more than one way of running a gantlet, she thought. At least the Indians give you a chance to run” (p85).

“Just two steps to the mirror, but in those two steps Miriam traveled a distance she could never retrace” (p122).

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Calico Captive

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