Mining the Mettle

Newberys Read This Year: 7

Newberys Left for Goal: 8

Newberys Left for Total: 22

 

Book: The Bronze Bow* by Elizabeth George Speare

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction

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When I was a college freshman I took a children’s literature class. It was there that I first encountered the Newbery-winning The Witch of Blackbird Pond which immediately became (and remains) one of my all-time favorite books. Later I discovered that its author, Elizabeth George Speare, is in the small company of authors with more than one book on the Newbery winner list. For some reason I thought the other book was The Sign of the Beaver, one of the few books I did not finish because I couldn’t stand it (chalk it up to my abhorrence of the survivalist genre). When I discovered my error and realized The Bronze Bow was Miss Speare’s second winner, with absolutely no real basis I assumed that this book was another survivalist tale and dreaded reading it. Turns out that what people say about assumptions is unquestionably true in this circumstance. Not only is Bow not survivalist, I found myself in great admiration of it, although admittedly it comes up short against Witch, but then most books do.

Our protagonist here is Daniel, a semi-orphaned Jewish boy living in exile with a group of other outlaws just outside his former home village of Ketzah, near Capernaum in the Holy Land. Daniel is in exile because of an offence he committed against the occupying Roman forces. Rosh, leader of the outlaw men with an ambiguous sense of morality, intends to stage an uprising against the Romans and is therefore Daniel’s hero.

Daniel by chance meets up with an old acquaintance of his, Joel bar Hezron, along with Joel’s sister Malthace. Although Joel is the son of a prominent rabbi, he shares Daniel’s anti-Roman sentiments and envies Daniel’s place in Rosh’s troop. The news that Joel brings of Daniel’s ill and elderly grandmother and emotionally disabled sister Leah bring Daniel back into his village for a visit. While there he comes across another old friend, Simon the Zealot, a blacksmith, just as Daniel was training to be before his exile. Simon was well-known for his opposition against the Romans, but now Simon is turning his back on his rebellious ways. The reason? Simon has become a follower of the radical thinker and speaker, Jesus of Nazareth.

While Daniel is disappointed at the change in Simon, he finds himself at a gathering with Jesus and is both intrigued and moved by Jesus’ words and message.  In time, as Daniel plots his own rebellion against the Romans he becomes increasingly conflicted between his desire for revenge and his attraction to Jesus’ teachings. There eventually comes a time when he must choose: vengeance or forgiveness?

This book won the award in 1962, 20 earth-years and several light-years after the incredibly pedantic The Matchlock Gun. Like Gun, this tale tells a lesson, but the tone and style Mrs. Speare chose to impart that lesson could not be more dissimilar from Mr. Edmonds’ heavy-handed instructiveness. This time our hero (and all characters, for that matter) has flaws, this time he is not the obedient model child designed for readers to emulate. This time he must think for himself. This time the author used finesse to flesh out her characters.

The conflict structure of the two books could not be more different, either. In Gun, the conflict was man (white settlers) against man (Native Americans) as well as man against himself (could Edward find the courage and physical strength to follow his mother’s directions?). Here in Bow we also do have man (Jews) against man (Romans), but the inner conflict of the protagonist is not about the courage and muscle to be obedient, but the courage and morality to know right from wrong and then to actually follow the right path. Mrs. Speare respects her child readers enough to give them a thoroughly human hero they can relate to. She put him in uncommon circumstances but gave him the most common of dilemmas—can he man up enough to do the right thing?

Mrs. Speare has crafted the type of historical fiction I like best: the protagonist is not an actual historical figure, but becomes caught up in actual historical events and interacts with actual historical figures. She made him human and relatable, and gave him the classic struggle of the human condition. No wonder her Bronze story took home Newbery gold.