Speare, Elizabeth George
SPEARE, Elizabeth George
Born 21 November 1908, Melrose, Massachusetts; died 14 November 1994
Daughter of Harry A. and Demetria Simmons George; married Alden Speare, 1936; children: son and a daughter
After graduation from college during the Depression, Elizabeth George Speare taught English in Massachusetts high schools for several years. She married an industrial engineer and then settled in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Speare did little writing until her son and daughter were in their teens, when she began to do articles for women's magazines and an occasional story and play. Two of Speare's books, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) and The Bronze Bow (1961) received the Newbery Award.
While reading about the history of the Connecticut River valley, Speare came upon A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson, the personal account of the actual experiences of Susanna Johnson during the French and Indian War. This pioneer woman and her family were taken by Indians to Montreal, where they were sold to the French, who held them for ransom. Among the captives was Mrs. Johnson's younger sister, Miriam Willard. Calico Captive presents events from Miriam's point of view, adding details and characters and elaborating upon the romantic aspects to produce an engrossing story and an interesting view of the period. Although Speare often seems overly conscious of her audience and many of the characters are types, Miriam emerges as a strong and likable young woman.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond also had its origin in a chance reading encounter. Speare happened to learn how children used to be sent from Barbados to Boston to be educated and wondered what life would have been like for a girl from those sunny surroundings in colonial Wethersfield with its grim, hard Puritan way of life. The result was the story of sixteen-year-old orphaned Kit Tyler—free-spirited, Anglican, and reared in luxury in the tropics—who travels to Connecticut to live with her aunt in 1687. Her recklessness brings her into conflict with the duty-ridden Puritans and culminates with her trial for witchcraft. Although the book's three romances seem contrived to please a teenaged audience, Kit's rigidly principled Uncle Matthew; the gentle, old but despised Quaker woman, Hannah; and the lonely, frightened child, Prudence, whose testimony saves Kit from conviction, are well-drawn characters, while the sense of Puritan ways and values is particularly strong.
An equally strong protagonist is Daniel bar Jamin in The Bronze Bow, an imaginary story set in Jesus' time, which rose out of Speare's wish to give her teenaged Sunday School class the feeling of what it must have been like to live in Palestine during the Roman occupation. It excels in making credible the intense hostility the ancient Jews felt for their conquerors and their deep frustration at being unable to stand up to the military might of the Romans.
In The Prospering (1967), Speare fictionalizes the actual experiences of the settlers who participated in the experiment of the Stockbridge mission in western Massachusetts. This was the plan of the visionary and zealous young John Sergeant to prepare the Native Americans to live and work in English ways upon land he hoped would remain theirs forever. The story is related by Elizabeth, youngest daughter of the Williams family, which was among the earliest settlers there. She sees the village grow over a 50-year period into a beautiful town, observing how the experiment fails because the Native Americans are unable to change their ways and the colonists increasingly use the Native Americans and the land for their own purposes. This novel is less successful as fiction than Speare's award-winning novels because its heroine is too objective and impassive and too much on the fringes of events to involve the reader deeply.
Speare knows how to tell a story well and create sympathetic central characters and memorable minor ones. Her best books move fast through well-researched, judiciously selected detail and are enlivened with much realistic dialogue. Speare is most outstanding for her ability to recreate past times believably and to give them life and immediacy by integrating the personal problems of her protagonists with those of the era. Although her output has not been large, Speare is ranked among the best of contemporary writers of historical fiction for young people.
Life in Colonial America (1963).
CB (1959). More Books by More People (1974). More Junior Authors (1963). Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1956-65 (1965). SAA (1973).
—ALETHEA K. HELBIG