Friday, May 20, 2011

Meggy MacIntosh, by Elizabeth Janet Gray

I'm amazed that I was able to find a good cover image for this book online, even though this book seems much more rare than Garram the Hunter, the cover of which I scanned myself for lack of anything at all in Google Images.

I enjoyed this book *so so* much. It's probably kind of premature, but it's definitely my favorite book of the 1930's so far.

Meggy MacIntosh is the descendant of a proud Highland family. However, her life has become meaningless and dull. After the death of her father at Culloden under the command of Jaime Frasier, she is forced to leave their small stone castle in the hills and move to Edinburgh with her aunt, uncle, and cousin. Her cousin Veronica is kind to her, but is a typical socialite. As the older of the two, Veronica is very busy having her hair styled and being fitted for clothes and attending parties and generally making herself known. Meggy knows that she will never be an equal to her cousin, and it wearies her to see the disappointment on the faces of young men when she goes out in Veronica's hand-me-downs. And although she used to have time to at least share her day with Meggy, Veronica is becoming too worn with her busy social life to have much to say. The only highlight of Meggy's day is her tutoring with Mr. MacPherson, and even this small pleasure is ending because the old man wishes to return to the hills to retire.

Meggy's life seems to be coming to a standstill until she is presented with a surprising opportunity. One of Veronica's many suitors, Ewan, will be sailing for America in just a few days time. He has asked Veronica to slip away from a party that evening, be escorted by his traveling companions, join him on the boat, and marry him en route. Veronica, a fickle sort, has decided by morning that the idea doesn't suit her. But Meggy knows by then that she will go in her place. She takes from their hiding place all that remains of her family's jewels (two ruby earrings and an imperfect emerald), packs her bag, and boards the ship. She stays in bed, feigning exhaustion, until the ship is well out of port and she feels safe that it will not return.

Ewan, understandably, is furious when the exchange is discovered. Meggy attempts to reassure him that she plans to pay her own passage and not burden him, and be self-sufficient once she reaches the colonies, but it does little to cool his anger. All of her life she has heard stories of the beautiful Flory MacDonald, who helped smuggle Bonny Prince Charlie out of harm's way. Meggy is certain that if she can just get to Flory, she can be of some use. In any case, she is already better off than many of the passengers, who will be sold into indentured servitude for ten years to work off the cost of their passage.

During the length of the trip, Meggy (as one of the few who does not become seasick) makes herself useful as companion and nurse to those who need her, and upon arriving in Wilmington, is offered a place to stay with relatives of a fellow passenger who had grown fond of her. This relative, Mr. Clayton, has two daughters, about Meggy's age, and for the first time she is able to delight in the company of peers who are not only kind, but interested in her, and see her as an equal.

And we're only on page 90 of 274!

Meggy isn't able to go to Flory in North Carolina right away. But as she slowly acclimates to Wilmington, and gets her land legs back, she starts to see the political tension that is building (and will eventually lead to the American Revolution). She is torn about her own feelings on the matter, though- she has friends on both sides. She understands why people would want to be loyal to the land and to their neighbors here in America. However, she wants to better understand the position of her former countrymen- how could Flory MacDonald and others who lost so much fighting the King at Culloden be willing to put the same force and passion into fighting for the king in America? Unlike many books written for children about the Revolution, this one paints both sides as genuine and good people. Usually, what you see is that all of the characters you like are Patriots, and the ones you don't like so much (like the stodgy old grandfather in the Felicity series) are the stuffy, unsympathetic loyalists.

Also, the close contact with indentured servitude (and lifelong servitude, in the case of plantation slaves) sheds light on this aspect of American history that children's fiction usually doesn't talk much about. There are some very cringe-worthy terms used for black slaves in this book, but they are historically accurate and not deliberately unkind.

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