Elizabeth Laird,
The Betrayal of Maggie Blair
(Houghton Mifflin, 2011)

Are there witches in the story? You decide.

The Betrayal of Maggie Blair, previously published in England as The Witching Hour, is about two women, a ragged old midwife and her young granddaughter, who are accused of witchcraft on the Isle of Bute, Scotland, in the tumultuous 1600s. Witchcraft to the people of the time was very real, and the actions of Granny -- without question a scowling and spiteful old crone -- must have seemed very much like magic to her superstitious neighbors. But if there is any real spell-casting going on in this novel, author Elizabeth Laird keeps it to herself.

This rich, deeply realized young-adult novel has much to say about belief and the way it affects people's actions. On Bute, folks believe in witchcraft, and so Granny and Maggie are condemned. Fleeing to the mainland, 16-year-old Maggie finds sanctuary with her uncle and his family -- but the people there are Covenanters, following in the Scottish Presbyterian movement and revering its spiritual head, the charismatic young preacher James Renwick (who makes a cameo appearance here), as a blessed martyr in the making. Many people there are willing to lay down their lives for their beliefs ... but is Maggie?

Either way, Maggie is quickly embroiled in religious and political turmoil as military-backed adherents of the Anglican faith -- who placed the English crown at the head of the church -- use force to beat the rebel faith down.

If any of that sounds dull, you haven't read Elizabeth Laird. Through meticulous research and careful character growth, Laird has captured Scotland as it must have been. Maggie's small world is so fully and colorfully developed, you can smell the heather and kine on the Scottish countryside. You feel her danger and can't help but admire her plucky tenacity throughout -- not through any great bravery or sense of purpose on her part so much as a stubborn desire to do the right thing for the people around her.

There are heroes and villains in this book, but mostly there are just people who disagree. Some are nicer than others, but few (not even the black-hearted Annie) are painted with a two-dimensional brush. Laird has brought both the landscape and its inhabitants to life.

It's refreshing to read a young-adult novel where romance is not a key element of the plot and the paranormal -- or at least its perception -- plays a negligible role. This is historical fiction that reads true, and the result is fine indeed.

book review by
Tom Knapp

30 April 2011

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