Pages: 360 (hardcover)
To Be Published: April 18th 2011 by Harper Teen
(Originally published in the UK as The Witching Hour)
*Received e-book from NetGalley in exchange for honest review*
Sixteen year old Maggie Blair lives in poverty with her grandmother Elspeth in seventeenth-century Scotland. Her grandmother is a harsh if well-meaning woman, deeply superstituous and disliked by the people of their small village near Scalpsie Bay. When her grandmother is accused of witchcraft, Maggie is locked away with her and sentenced to hang. She manages to escape, even after another girl testifies against her (in a scenario reminscient of the Salem Witch Trials), and runs away to live with her uncle Blair and his family.
There's no peace for her there, either-- Annie, the girl who testified against Maggie and got her arrested as a witch, soon arrives in the household and immediately causes strife among the once-happy family. Maggie's uncle Blair is a Presbyterian Covenanter-- one of many Scots in that time who were against the King's reform of the Christian Church. When he is arrested for treason, Maggie pursues her uncle's captors on her own terms-- all the while struggling with her own ideas about loyalty and religion and whether her future will be brighter than her troubled and difficult past.
I have mixed feelings towards The Betrayal of Maggie Blair. It's certainly a captivating read, and Maggie's is a powerful voice. I liked the honest way Elizabeth Laird portrays seventeenth century Scotland-- beautiful, proud, and brutal at once. The religious tones were a little heavy for me, but that is characteristic of that time period, too. This isn't a story about religion, though, or a story about witches (as the UK title suggests), but the story of one brave girl and how she manages to survive and then goes on to make her own way in a harsh world. Maggie and her grandmother are by far the most impressionable characters-- especially her grandmother. At first, I was convinced she really was a mean old woman and maybe a witch as well, because she did seem to know a lot of good herbal remedies and chants. But then later it becomes clear that Elspeth Blair wanted the best for Maggie in her own way, and that she's so tough because, heck, she's had to be that way her whole life. I even liked Annie, the servant girl who betrays Maggie, in a kind of like-hate way. She was wicked as can be, sure, but so realistic in her own specific brand of badness that I totally believed in her character.
This is by no means a book that would one would describe as 'too short', judging from page number alone. But in the end, yeah, I'm convinced there was a lot more to tell. The ending wasn't a bad one, exactly, but we never really find out what happens to Maggie beyond the fact that she's definitely going to be making her own choices from now on. I really liked Maggie as a protagonist, and wanted a happily-ever-after kind of ending for her, but readers are kind of left wanting for a more conclusive ending. Another thing was that, despite Maggie's conviction that she and her grandmother are not witches (in the sense of seventeenth century Christians' witch hunts), there are several instances where one of them says or works a simple, charm against evil and it ends up successful. I wondered whether Elspeth Blair didn't have some kind of natural power, and if Maggie hadn't inherited it.
Two things I found really cool about this novel: Number One, the cover. I think it is absolutely perfect, and I love the texture of the sea, the sand of Scalpie Bay, and the dark clouds parting in the background. I also think it's very cool how many of the characters' lives are based on real people, several of whom are ancestors of Elizabeth Laird, the author. Hugh Blair, for example, is based off a Scottish Covenanter who was arrested for treason against the church and pretty much lived out the same story as his character in the book. And Maggie was loosely based off another of her ancestors, Margaret Blair, who was thought to be a witch because she had fainting spells and fits (epilepsy?), but she was never actually accused of witchcraft or sentenced to hang. For me, the history behind the book made it that much more real, and the world Elizabeth Laird has created is very realistic and profound to begin with. I definitely recommend this one.
*This book qualifies for the following reading challenges: YA Historical Fiction Challenge 2011; British Books Challenge 2011.*