Sunday, February 10, 2008

Elizabeth George Speare

Born November 21, 1908 in Melrose, Massachusetts
Died November 15, 1994 in Tucson, Arizona

There are many parallels between the career of Elizabeth George Speare and that of Virginia Lee Burton despite their writing a generation apart. They were both New England natives, they both spent much of their life focused on their family and came to their writing careers later, and they both produced a body of work which, although small, was both critically and popularly acclaimed.

Their differences were in the audience for which they wrote (Speare wrote for independent readers and young adults whereas Burton, as an artist, focused on picture books for younger children) and the material about which they wrote. Burton's picture book stories are all problem solving themes - being resourceful and working with and within your community to solve some problem. Speare wrote historical fiction for independent readers and has many more layers to her tales.

Elizabeth George was born November 21, 1908 in Melrose, Massachusetts and enjoyed an unusually bucolic childhood. She wrote in More Junior Authors that she felt her birthplace to be

an ideal place in which to have grown up, close to fields and woods where we hiked and picnicked, and near to Boston where we frequently had family treats of theaters and concerts. Every summer we went to the shore, where we stayed on a hill with a breathtaking view of the ocean, with fields and daisies and blueberries, and lovely secret paths through the woods, but, except for my small brother, not another young person anywhere. As I grew older I realized that those lonely summers had been a special gift for which I would always be grateful. I had endless golden days to read and think and dream, and it was then that I discovered the absorbing occupation of writing stories.

I went on writing stories all through high school, but I never again had much time to be alone. I went to Boston University and on to graduate school, and then I taught in Massachusetts high schools. I very much enjoyed teaching English because it was always a thrill to watch some girl or boy discover for the first time the enchantment of reading and writing.

She married Alden Speare in 1936. They moved to Connecticut and in 1939 their son Alden, Jr. was born followed, in 1942, by Mary. The next several years were absorbed by raising her children and it was not until they were in high school that Speare began to turn her hand to writing again, first with articles for women's magazines and the like but ultimately leading to an article being accepted by American Heritage, a forum for writing much more akin to the genre in which she made her reputation.

Speare only published eight books in total, four of which were adult books. Her first novel, Calico Captive, was written for children and was published in 1957, followed a year later by The Witch of Blackbird Pond. In 1961 she published The Bronze Bowwhich was followed by a twenty-two year hiatus during which no children's books were published. In 1983 she released her last book which was also her last children's book, The Sign of the Beaver.

What is remarkable here is the critical reception. Of her four children's books, two (The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Bronze Bow) received The Newberry Medal, the highest award for writing, and a third, The Sign of the Beaver, was a runner-up receiving the Newberry Honor Medal. The decision by the judges for a Newberry Medal for The Witch of Blackbird Pond was apparently a very rare unanimous decision. Many successful authors of children's books go their whole career without any Newberry recognition. For an author to receive two medals and an honor and for that to reflect three quarters of her books is without precedent.

Her one book not to receive a Newberry, despite its popular reception on its debut, was her first, Calico Captive. I think it is fair to speculate that the judges might have been influenced by Lois Lenski's having won a Newberry Honor for a similarly themed story, Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison sixteen years earlier in 1942.

Lenski and Speare shared a similar passion for detailed research, research that gave their stories such immediacy and veracity.

In order to truly share the adventures of my imaginary people, I had to know many things about them - the houses they lived in, the clothes they wore, the food they ate, how they made a living, what they did for fun, what things they talked about, cared about. You can call this research if you like, but that seems to me a dull word for such a fascinating pursuit. (From an interview conducted by Lee Bennett Hopkins and recorded in Pauses.)

She also indicated in Anita Silvey's Children's Books and Their Creators

Young readers write to me, "How did you learn about Indians?" or about life in colonial times? The answer, of course, is research, a word most students seem to find forbidding. To me, it is an ever-fascinating game which I have likened to a scavenger hunt. I go to the library with a long list of items I must find. And turning the pages of some long-forgotten book in a dusty corner, I come upon unexpected treasures, bright bits of history.

And later

Not all the discoveries are in libraries. At a local fair, I watched a woman demonstrating the art of spinning. The colonists, she told me, used a mixture of wool and flax, and, she said, it was the scratchiest clothing you could imagine. I thought of boys sitting for hours on school benches, in their homespun linsey-woolsey clothes, waiting patiently for a turn to read from the book held in the teacher's hand.

Calico Captive is a fictionalized account based on a true story recorded in the diary of Susanna Johnson relating the capture of herself and her family in 1807 by Abenaki Indians during the French and Indian War; their forced march from New Hampshire to Canada; and their eventual rescue when they were ransomed. American's have a very rich, moving and surprisingly balanced literary heritage of stories relating to being captured by Native Americans: how some captives died, some integrated with the tribe, and some returned. For an adult book on this topic, (also appropriate for Young Adults with a strong interest in history) try The Unredeemed Captive by John Demos.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is not based so narrowly on a single event or character but is historical fiction based on the broader events of a period (1687 and the Puritans' persecution of "witches") made real through a fictional character, Kit Tyler who, as an outside from Barbados, is already somewhat beyond the pale, and through her association and friendship with an older woman on the fringe of Puritan society, becomes suspected of being a witch.

The Bronze Bow has a narrower fan base than Speare's other three books but it has a particularly enthusiastic following, in part because of the immediacy of Speare's writing style and in part because it is the only one of her books set in a completely different time and location. The Bronze Bow recounts the trials and gradual maturing and enlightenment of an embittered Jewish boy resentful of the Romans' occupation of Palestine. Speare handles the delicacies of historically writing about Jesus with remarkable finesse.

Her final book, The Sign of the Beaver, is perhaps her most sympathetic to Native Americans. Again, Speare bases her story on a true event. The setting is 1768 in colonial Maine and involves the story of thirteen-year old Matt. Matt's father has had to leave him temporarily on his own in the wilderness to guard their new home while he travels to fetch Matt's mother and sister from the coast. Temporarily turns out to be for the whole summer and autumn and Matt has to learn how to survive on his own, fend for himself, and then, as a further complication that turns into a blessing, figure out how to address two Penobscot Indians, an old man and his grandson who appear in his neighborhood. It is sort of a blend of My Side of the Mountain with a story of cultural discovery.

Speare's writing is always well-researched and characterized by attention to detail and setting, character development and compelling narrative. It is understandable why it has been said that it is a rare graduate of high school that makes it through without reading at least one of her four wonderful books.

Independent Reader

Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare and illustrated by W.T. Mars Highly Recommended

The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare Recommended

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare Recommended

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare Recommended

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