Friday, August 6, 2010

Calico Bush, by Rachel Field

Calico Bush is the story of Marguerite, a 12-year-old French girl, who has found herself orphaned and "bound out" to an English family settling in what is now Maine in 1743.

I remember having this book recommended to me by my 5th grade teacher, but being unable to get into it. In short, I abandoned it. Reading it today, I have no idea what my problem was! It was a quick-paced, engaging read, and Marguerite is a well-developed, likable character.

Marguerite is bound out to a family with several children younger than herself, and one son a year her senior. The family makes its way to Maine, and to the plot of land they acquired from a friend - only to find that the house has been burned down by Tarratine Indians. Despite neighbors' warnings that the site is somehow important to the Indians, and the resultant risk of raids, the family's patriarch decides to rebuild. We watch as Marguerite learns about roof-raising festivities, corn-shucking bees, and other daily trials and tribulations of settlers of the "New World".

We also hear referenced the war with the Canadian French, protestant/Catholic tensions, and about conflicts with the Indians in the area. Marguerite herself actually finds a cave with the remnants of a white victim of a relatively recent raid; however, she also makes friends with an Indian she happens to cross paths with on Christmas Eve. That chance meeting sets the stage - and probably outcome - of a later meeting with a large group of Indians, who show up at the door of the family's cabin. Marguerite takes the situation in hand, and first gives the Indians all the food in the house, and then, in desperation, rips apart a fine linen sheet from her mistress' hope chest to make ribbons for a maypole. She does her best to show the children, and the Indians in turn, how to weave the ribbons around. It doesn't exactly work, but the Indians are enchanted, and when the maypole breaks, they take pieces of the "ribbons" and go on their way, leaving the family unharmed. As a result, the point of land where all this took place is named "The Maypole".

I wasn't able to find out via google, though I plan to do some local research when I get a chance, how true this story is. However, there is a point called The Maypole on one of the Cranberry Isles off the coast of Maine, and there is also a grave in one of the old cemeteries of a woman named Marguerite LaCroix, "the French wife of one of the early settlers". So I think Ms. Field may have been working from a local legend when she wrote this book.

Modern readers might be surprised by the treatment of Indians (more often referred to as "Injuns") in this book; at the same time, the attitudes of the English people in the book toward the Indians are probably fairly accurate. It would be worth discussing with a child reader, but for a book of this period, the treatment is not too bad. We do see their human side, thanks to Marguerite's encounters.

The book also contains some really insightful passages about Marguerite's transition from her former life in France with her grandmother and uncle, to living with this English family who don't like to hear her talk about anything Catholic or French, and who forbid her use of French with the children. She talks, for example, about noticing the first time that the thoughts in her head are in English, not French, and worrying about forgetting all of her French songs and stories, while at the same time being desperate for approval and inclusion in this new world she's found herself in.

I'd definitely recommend this book, especially to classes who are learning about early settlers of New England, for a perspective other than the Plymouth Pilgrims. It also gives a good background for discussions about French/English/Indian conflict in the 18th Century. Maine children could probably be especially interested, but I think it's a good story for a child anywhere. I'm sorry I missed out on it as a kid!

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