Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The Betrayal of Maggie Blair ~ Elizabeth Laird

Although she had already had a long career writing picture books, I first came across Elizabeth Laird when her novel for older children, Red Sky in the Morning, was published in 1989.  The book, which is about a girl taking care of her hydrocephalic baby brother, marked her as something very special, a writer whose voice rings with truth and integrity in every word she writes.  With each subsequent book Laird has only reinforced that first impression.  Her 2007 book, Crusade, was one of the best and most balanced accounts of the Holy Wars for children that I have ever read and was deservedly short listed for both the Costa and the Carnegie Children's Literature Awards.  Now we have her latest book, The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, which I have had the privilege of reading pre-publication via NetGalley, and I have to say that I think it is well nigh perfect.

Based on events from Laird's own family history, the book tells the story of sixteen year old Maggie Blair, who lives on the Island of Bute with her maternal Grandmother.  We are sometime in the 1680s and the peace of the country and of the folk who live there is ravaged by two manifestations of prejudice, intolerance and self-seeking;  the pursuit of those deemed to be witches and the persecution by royal forces of the Covenanters.  Disliked by the islanders for her sharp tongue, it takes very little for a grasping landowner to turn the local people against Maggie's Grandmother and have her condemned as a  witch.  Barely escaping with her own life, Maggie is forced to flee the island and seek shelter with the family of her father's brother, a family she has never met before.

Rather than finding herself in any form of haven, Maggie discovers that her uncle is a staunch Covenanter and, as such, likely to be arrested by the Red Coats and forced to take the test of loyalty to the Crown; to declare that the King is the Head of the Church and stands between his people and God. There will be no peaceful life for her on the mainland either, it seems.  Matters become even worse, when the girl who betrayed Maggie on Bute turns up at her uncle's farm and looks set fair to continue to act in whatever way is most likely to line her own pockets regardless of who is harmed in the process.

One of Laird's great strengths is that she knows just how far to take a young reader into the horror of some of the situations in which her characters find themselves.  She shirks nothing of what happened to witches in the seventeenth century, nor of the tortures and depravations that were inflicted on those who opposed the Crown.  Nevertheless, she still leaves the reader with enough grounds for hope to make the reading experience a positive one.

Neither does she shirk the questions raised by the religious and political disputes that the characters find themselves engulfed by.  Just as in Crusade the reader was asked to see the conflict from both sides and to recognise the cruelty of belief carried to its extremes whatever the faction involved, so here, Maggie questions the faith that asks a man to sacrifice himself for his beliefs at the expense not only of his own life but also that of his family.

And it is here that the ambiguity of Laird's title comes to the fore.  Who is being betrayed?  Is it Maggie, or is it that Maggie herself is the one who is guilty of betrayal.  Certainly, Maggie is betrayed by people in whom she should have been able to place her faith, but there is also a question in her own mind as to whether or not in trying to persuade her uncle to take the test and return to his family she is betraying him.  There are no simple answers in this book.  Laird never lets you take the easy way out.

I suspect that The Betrayal of Maggie Blair is too late to be considered for this year's Carnegie, but whenever the opportunity does arise it should certainly be on the short list and I have to say that it will be a book worth reading that beats it into second place.  I don't think Laird puts a foot wrong in this novel and I can't recommend it too highly.

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