Elizabeth Speare won the Newberry twice in the ’50s and ’60s for historical novels about two periods: “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” in Puritan New England and “The Bronze Bow” in New Testament Galilee. The truth is, these books are much more about the 1950s and ’60s than they are about Puritans or early Christian converts. Now, I’ll say this–Speare did her homework for the details. Things like house layout and daily chores are nicely integrated into the story. She was familiar with the legal systems of both the Romans in Galilee and the Puritans in New England.
What she didn’t do was serious historical interrogation. The books perfectly capture the idea that American culture has of particular time periods. The Puritans and the earliest Christians live in our memories, in our movies, plays, and in hundreds of novels.
The books run in clear counter-narratives to contemporary issues (intolerance and use of violence) while skimming over historical ones. Take race: the main character in “Blackbird Pond” mentions having sold her little Negro girl, and the only black character in “Bronze Bow” is a mute and apparently retarded giant.
A good historical novel doesn’t use the time period as trappings and plot devices. It interrogates the issues of the time to reframe the issues of the present, rather than manipulating historical facts and practices into foreshadowing contemporary problems.
But I will say this: the stories are solid, the characters are vivid. There are a few individual moments in the novels with such eloquent narrative payoffs that the entire books are elevated. If Speare had been a little braver, the books might have moved from good to great.