Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Book of Maggie Bradstreet by Gretchen Gibbs

It is 1692 and in Andover, Massachusetts, Maggie Bradstreet has received a blank book with many pages to fill up with her thoughts for her 13th birthday.  Maggie, whose father, Dudley Bradstreet, is the magistrate, has been fortunate enough to have learned to read and write beyond what most girls learn at the time.  Still, Maggie would like to have continued with school like her older brother Dudley Jr. is allowed to do.  And unfortunately, Maggie isn't quite as good at needlework, cooking or other household jobs expected of girls and women.

Maggie would much rather go off with her friends - Polly Bridges, whose father is a blacksmith and tends to drink away his profits and is considered not a fit friend for Maggie by her parents; Hannah  Dane, granddaughter of Reverend Francis Dane; and Sarah Abbot, the first to bring the news to Maggie and Hannah that witchcraft is no longer only in Salem but has come to Andover.  And so on May 29, 1692, Maggie, Hannah and Sarah walk the distance to Goody Carrier's house to see her arrested for being a witch, changing life in Andover for everyone.

Like the citizens of Salem, where a witchcraft frenzy was already in full sway, Andover was a Puritan settlement and now the same kind of witchcraft frenzy is stirred up in the Meeting House there, fueled by the afternoon sermons of Rev. Thomas Barnard.  Rev. Dane attempted to be the voice of reason but fear drives people's feeling and before long, arrests are made, including Polly Bridges' mother, an arrest that nearly destroys the family.

Throughout all this, Maggie can only watch and worry.  But she stands by her friend Polly as much as possible.  And because her father is the magistrate, it is his job to write the arrest warrants for all the witchcraft arrests that follow Goody Carrier's that fateful summer and fall of 1692.  But there comes a point when he can no longer go against his conscience and when he refuses to write any more warrants, Maggie, her parents and brother are forced to flee Andover and hide out in New Hampshire, leaving behind Maggie's beloved dog, Tobey.  Tobey pays a heavy price when it is rumored that he has been bewitched by Maggie's Uncle John Bradstreet, as does everyone who is accused of being a witch, a wizard or bewitched by one of them.

At the back of the book, Gretchen Gibbs explains how The Book of Maggie Bradstreet came about. Her parents were both interested in family history and it was her father discovered they were related to Dudley Bradstreet, the magistrate, and how he refused to write any more warrants.  Maggie's diary is, however, historical fiction based on real events and real people, most of whom appear in this book.  Much of the information about the accused and their trials that Maggie details in her fictional diary was obtained from records of the time found at the Historical Societies of Andover.

I found Maggie Bradstreet to be a believable character, because she is far from perfect, even in Puritan society and  one that kids would really be able to relate to.  Because her diary is kept in a secret place, she is honest about her crush on Polly's cousin Tyler, how she feels towards other people, and through her writing, you can see how she begins to develop her own skepticism about witchcraft based on what she sees and hears.

I found The Book of Maggie Bradstreet to be an engaging, thought provoking novel, one that is eminently readable.  I think it also resonates in today's world because it shows how easily people can be swayed to believe even the most unlikely things about their former friends and neighbors.  Which is scary stuff, when you think about it.

I personally like reading books about this period of American history, for much the same reason as Gibbs.  I, too, have family that witnessed but were not involved in the witchcraft accusations, trials and hanging in Salem, MA.  Gibbs enough background information about that, so the story would appeal even to a reader not familiar with the Witch Trials.  She also gives lots of detailed information about what life was life for the Puritans on a daily basis, and the influence their religion had one them, but not so much that it bogs down the story.    

The Book of Maggie Bradstreet includes a map and information about what happened to the people involved in the Witch Trials of Andover.  This book is a nice companion to Elizabeth George Speare's novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which takes place a few years before the Salem Witch Trials, but shows how witchcraft was in the air even then.  Maggie Bradstreet is a nice addition to any classroom, home school, or personal library.

This book is recommended for readers 12+
This book was received as an eARC from Net Galley

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