Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Prospering - Elizabeth George Speare

Google a search on Elizabeth George Speare and you will get a nice bio and a list of New bery Award winners and honor books that she wrote between 1957 and 1984. Her novels for young adult readers were the stuff of history that I grew up on - Calico Captive, The Bronze Bow, The Sign of the Beaver, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond were all classics of historical fiction. Yet, nowhere in that biography will you find note of her novel for adults called The Prospering.

The Prospering is a fictionalized (albeit incredibly well-researched) novel that revolves around the grand experiment undertaken by the Massachusetts settlers to convert the native peoples.

In the year 1734, the Massachusetts leaders partially funded a settlement along the Housatonic River in the extreme frontier of the Massachusetts colony. The small community of Stockbridge, Massachusetts was built centered around a church and a mission house in which John Sergeant settled. Sergeant spent the next fifteen years learning the Mahican language and preaching conversion to the natives in the region. He began a school for native boys (and later the settlers' sons), hoping that a Christian education would lead the natives to take up Christian living and the farming lifestyle of the European settlers.
Sergeant and the Massachusetts governors gave initial tracts of land along Stockbridge Plain to four families that pledged to settle there and support the work of John Sergeant. The Williams family was one of the families that headed to the western frontier and it is through young Elizabeth William's eyes that the story of  Stockbridge's grand experiment is told.
This is a wrenching story, as Elizabeth views the politics of settlement, the land grab that ensues, the conflict of theology between the regional ministers, the growing unrest between the native peoples, the British, and the French, and the failed gentrification of the area natives. Elizabeth Williams is no slouch; she is an intelligent and astute observer with a pure sense of honesty and respect for her family AND her friends, the native peoples. Within her family, there is a great range in attitudes toward the natives. Elizabeth struggles to continue to love and respect her siblings and father, despite their superior attitudes and increasingly unethical treatment of the local Indian citizens and the funds allocated for their school and upkeep.
The book is an honest chronicle of these hard times when people were struggling to understand the natives' attitudes toward the land, find ways to live peacefully with a people that changed their allegiances and seemed fickle, and blend the practicality of dealing with the European colonial politics while living with the Indians in their community. It is a finely researched and well-written book that does not sugar coat any aspect of life on the Massachusetts frontier.
When I first discovered this book, I was immediately taken by it. It was such an engrossing read, as I was staying in Stockbridge at the time. My sister lives there and I found the book in the local library when I was visiting her for a long summer vacation. As I read the book, I was able to visit many of the places that Mrs. Speare describes in the book - the Ice Glen, the backroads to Sheffield, Massachusetts, the hills that sit above the Stockbridge Plain, the Housatonic River, and the tiny village of Stockbridge. I visited the Mission House Museum and the area examples of early architecture. I am such a fan of historical fiction that the book was a joy for me to read.
Thirty years went by and I forgot all about the book until a friend mentioned reading it a few weeks ago. A search in my local library turned up nothing and when I mentioned the book to the librarian, she was agog. Elizabeth George Speare wrote for adults? We did a library loan search and within a few days, I had a copy to re-read. It was just as good the second time through as the first.
Oh, how I wish she had written more for adults, but I can always return to her classic young adult books for good stories that accompany excellent history lessons! Rest in peace, Mrs. George.

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