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the bronze bow

21 november 2013

Elizabeth George Speare's second Newbery Medal book, The Bronze Bow, is less often read than her first, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and it's easy to see why. The Bronze Bow is flawed, conflicted, and contrived by comparison. The earlier novel is a teen Puritan romance with a likable protagonist. The latter is a Little-League version of Ben-Hur.

Yet The Bronze Bow shares some of the psychological insight and narrative drive of its author's more famous Medal winner. Our hero Daniel is himself conflicted. He's a young Jewish revolutionary of late antiquity, sallying out from his hideout in the hills to kick the occasional centurion butt while wondering whether the whole primeval intifada isn't a sort of higher gangsterism. Word comes up from Capernaum that there's a groovy new rabbi, name of Jesus, who hosts loaf-and-fish-fry dinners and preaches other-cheekiness while healing the sick. And Daniel has a very sick sister – well, Leah's not as sick as Ben-Hur's leprous sister, but she's epileptic, perhaps possessed, and therefore languishes housebound and uncourted.

Daniel's divided allegiances between rebellion and family drive the early part of the plot, but then Speare takes her foot off the pedal, and Daniel starts a career as a village blacksmith (taking over a shop from his old pal Simon the Zealot, who has chucked the business to do the barefoot-in-sackcloth disciple thing). In the novel's tensionless midriff, Daniel discovers another motivation: girls, specifically Thacia, the hot sister of Joel, one of his more intellectual comrades in arms. For a while it looks like Thacia will like Daniel, Joel will like Leah, Leah will like Joel, and the whole book will descend into a young-adult romance of particularly sappy proportions.

In the windup, though (after an exciting action scene where Daniel springs Joel from Roman captivity), Daniel shows that he's more interested in beating up random Romans than in having a girlfriend, and Thacia gives him his walking papers. Meanwhile, Leah barely knows Joel is alive: she's really in love with a young Roman soldier. In a final sequence of scenes that I will now brazenly spoil, Daniel forbids the soldier Marcus his house, Leah pines unto death for love, Jesus shows up in arise-and-walk mode, and Daniel finally gets the message that he's going to have to lighten up and love his neighbor. He gets to talking with Marcus, who come to find is no Roman at all but a blond German slave from the northern marches, working off his captivity as a legionnaire. The book ends when the Jewish boy invites the German boy into his home to visit his newly-cured sister.

Contrivance indeed; but along the way, especially in its first half, The Bronze Bow generates some interesting, if derivative, tensions between righteous rebellion and the imperatives of peace. Speare gives us an energetic but calm Jesus, highly interested in people but strictly helping those who help themselves. It's a book meant to get you thinking about the claims of Christianity, and to its credit, after 50+ years and huge changes in the rhetoric of children's books, it can still do that.

Speare, Elizabeth George. The bronze bow. 1961. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.