Saturday, February 13, 2010

Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks: Calico Captive

This past week, I delved into Calico Captive, a middle grades novel by Elizabeth George Speare, author of several well-written books.  This story is a fictional account, based on actual events, of Miriam Willard, a sixteen-year-old who is abducted by Abenaki Indians and taken to Montreal in 1754.

Inspired by the captivity narrative of Susanna Willard Johnson, Miriam's older sister, Calico Captive details events of the abduction, harrowing march to Canada, and then the family's separation.  Forced to leave her sister Susanna, the baby, and her nephew Sylvanus at the Indian village of St. Francis, Miriam, her brother-in-law Captain James Johnson, and her two nieces are taken to Montreal, where Miriam is installed as a maid in a wealthy family's home.  She endures frightening uncertainty and upheaval in the French city, managing to survive while awaiting the outcome of Captain Johnson's ransom efforts.

I enjoyed this story, Speare's first novel.  Even though it is a middle grades/YA novel, its high quality and riveting storyline appeals to adults as well.  Speare's vivid descriptions and skillful handling of Miriam's inner emotional conflict lend a rich realism to the narrative.  However, several of her characterizations are somewhat flat.  With that being said, Miriam is very well sketched; Speare seems to have put the most effort into her main character.  The fact that Miriam sometimes makes poor decisions or behaves in a disappointing manner endow her with the humanity of an authentic teenage girl thrust into shocking circumstances.

Moreover, the novel shines a light on an oft-overlooked period of colonial American history, when tensions ran high between the French and the English, culminating the the French and Indian War.  It was frighteningly common for French-paid natives to attack and kidnap English settlers, march them to Canada, and then either hold them for ransom or sell them to French families.  Some abductees, especially children, stayed with native families, as well.  Some captives later published their stories, giving rise to the captivity narrative genre.  Magalini Sabina has written a wonderful description of the captivity narrative genre (and Calico Captive itself) that is worth reading, and I point you to it.

NOTE:  Calico Captive would be a worthwhile addition to a middle grades or high school student's colonial American coursework.  For further study, a facsimile of Susanna Willard Johnson's diary is online here at the Online Books Page.  An easy-to-read summation is available at Northeast Captivity Stories here.  Several captivity narratives are available online, such as Mary Rowlandson's Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.  Further, some online literary criticism of the captivity narrative genre may be worth investigation (although not by a middle grades student), but be sure to view online criticism with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Look for reliable sources.  I found the essay "Women Captives and Indian Captivity Narratives" to be a useful exploration of the genre.


  1. That sounds very interesting. I'm taking note for when we get to that historical time period.


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