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Calico Captive

Calico Captive - Elizabeth George Speare, W.T. Mars Welcome to another episode of Deborah's Library Book Is Overdue! Today's special guest is a YA novel by Elizabeth George Speare, author of the modern classic The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Although Deborah read this book in a couple of hours and her library now allows her to renew books twice provided no one has placed a hold on the title, she still managed to put off reviewing it long enough to rack up some minor but humiliating fees.

Deborah also deserves some public mocking for the fact that, when she noticed the book was due on December 26, she immediately concocted and believed a charming fantasy of lolling around with a cup of eggnog while she typed up a review on the day after Christmas, because of course she'd have nothing better to do that day. Please laugh hard enough at her that she can hear you without even opening her window!

Thanks, folks! And now: the book!

Calico Captive is a YA novel based on the story told in the 1754 memoir Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson. I was lucky enough to find a copy of that narrative, and so was able to see how much truth had slipped into the novel.

Quite a bit, as it happens. This review will focus on pointing out the nonfiction that can be found in the fiction. I hope this will be fun for people who've already read the book and, like me, always wondered how much of it was factually accurate.

For readers unfamiliar with the novel: it's a well written historical YA novel that contains a minimum of mushy romance, though there's just enough love-interest to keep things interesting. If you liked Witch of Blackbird Pond, you'll enjoy this, though the main character's loathing of Native Americans is cringe-inducing at times. (It's historically accurate but pretty sad that this character doesn't change her mind any even when a white guy tries to explain some basic "they were here first" morality.)

Speare wisely chooses to make Mrs. Johnson's younger sister Miriam Willard her protagonist. Miriam isn't described in too much detail in the memoir, so Speare has some room to play. Also, Susanna Johnson is an intelligent, deeply pious, extremely narrow-minded New England matron whose abhorrence and distrust of Native Americans is second only to her loathing of the French. (It's a close race, by the way. She makes it clear in her memoir that she doesn't consider either group to be fully human.) Young readers wouldn't find much to relate to in this upright Puritan lady.

But Miriam, while sharing most of her sister's sentiments, is young – only fourteen years old when the story begins – and therefore more sympathetic and interesting to teenage readers. She's in the middle of her very first crush when Abenakis raid her home in Charlestown, New Hampshire. She and Susanna are taken prisoner, along with Susanna's husband and children. They are brought to an Abenaki village the whites called St. Francis, and eventually sent to Canada to wait to be ransomed or exchanged for French prisoners.

All of this really happened. And in both novel and memoir, Susanna is heavily pregnant when their captivity begins. However, there was no debate among their captors as to whether the prisoners would be murdered or taken back with the Abenakis as valuable hostages. Speare invented this for dramatic tension, although it's a fairly accurate representation of the idea whites held that Indians were unpredictably violent "savages."

Susanna does indeed lose her shoe as the family is hurried along, and the captives worry that her inability to travel very quickly will endanger all their lives. Speare sticks close to her source material all through Miriam's journey with her family to St. Francis. One detail I found interesting was that in the novel, Susanna gives birth to a baby during this forced march and names her Captive. In real life, the baby was named Elizabeth Captive.

Both the memoir and the novel mention that the baby nearly drowns while the captives ford a stream. In the novel, Miriam is a crucial participant in a dramatic rescue; in the memoir, it's a male neighbor who'd been taken captive in the same raid who saves the baby's life.

Rather to my surprise, the young Native American man who teases Miriam on their journey is also straight from the memoir. He feels like a character invented solely for a potential love-triangle, and in fact Speare offers a bit of romantic drama from him that's crucial to the plot but entirely fictional. But there really was such a teenaged Abenaki, described by Susanna as "a youth of sixteen, who in our journey discovered [revealed] a very mischievous and troublesome disposition." She adds that "he often delighted himself by tormenting my sister [Miriam], by pulling her hair, treading on her gown, and numerous other boyish pranks." Times change; people don't.

Certainly teenagers don't. In the novel, Miriam doesn't see her sister Susanna's patience and strength; she only feels a bitter frustration that Susanna keeps slowing them down, first when she's heavily pregnant and then as she struggles to recover from giving birth. Apparently, this is an accurate representation of Miriam's feelings, as this line from Susanna's memoir makes clear: "My sister observed, that, if I could have been left behind, our trouble would have been seemingly nothing."

Once the captives reach St. Francis and then white Canada, Speare drifts from her source material in order to introduce the obligatory love triangle and a rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-freedom story based entirely on a single sentence from the captivity narrative: "[Miriam] had supported herself by her needle in the family of the lieutenant governor, where she was treated extremely well."

Susanna Johnson's captivity narrative is available online fer free; so if you read Calico Captive, you can then read the real story for yourself right here: