We finished our long, mid-eighteenth century trek with Marguerite to the Maine wilderness in Calico Bush earlier today, and with that I breathed a sigh of relief. This was the second book by Rachel Field we’ve enjoyed as a read-aloud. We read Hitty, Her First Hundred Years almost four years ago (!!!), so I’m not sure how much my girls actually remember of it. I chose Calico Bush not so much because we loved Hitty (though I did, and the girls enjoyed it) but because of its setting’s proximity to the French and Indian War. It’s the story of Marguerite LeDoux, a French girl “bound out” to the Sargent family after her Grandme’re and Oncle Pierre both die before they can settle with Marguerite in America. Marguerite moves with the Sargents to the wilds of Maine from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and their new home really is the outpost of civilization. They also realize after they arrive in Maine that the man from whom they purchased their new home had not been on the up-and-up about it:
It was risky business settling anywhere along the coast, but that point of land was notorious. There was something queer and sinister about it. The Indians held it in very peculiar regard. It must in some way be connected with their religion, for every year in the late spring they had appeared in hordes, ugly and resentful of the white men’s intrusion. (41)
In addition to the constant fear of the Natives, the Sargents deal with other problems–the hard winter, the hard work associated with taming the land, etc. Life isn’t without its joys, though, as Joel Sargent’s younger brother Ira also settles with them and generally makes life a little more cheerful than the elder Sargents are wont to do. There are also the neighbors, some of which look askance at the Sargents because of their foolishness for settling there. There’s a bit of romantic rivalry between Ira Sargent and another neighbor for the affections of a young woman. There’s also a tragedy (which took us completely by surprise!) Frontier life is presented very realistically, I would imagine. The best part is the internal struggle in Marguerite–how can she maintain her French identity, especially as it is looked upon with derision by the Sargents? She’s a plucky heroine, though, and she finally does make her mark positively on the family by the end of the story.
Calico Bush won a 1932 Newbery honor designation, and it’s very much a product of its time. In other words, it’s pretty non-culturally sensitive in its treatment of Native Americans, etc. I tend to not mind that so much, but even I thought this one seemed a bit extreme in some ways (i.e. depicting the Natives as childlike or ignorant, etc.) The most difficult thing about the book to me was the fact that there are no chapter divisions; instead, the book is divided into seasons. This makes reading aloud particularly difficult since there are few natural places to stop reading for the day. My personal favorite part of the story is Marguerite’s relationship with an older neighbor woman, Hepsa Jordan. I also enjoyed the references to folktales and natural remedies, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, the fact that Marguerite herself was probably a real person. All in all, the plot and characterization seem somewhat subdued, which perhaps is another mark of the time in which it was written. Am I glad we read it? Yes. Would I read it aloud again? I’m not sure. It’s one I could definitely see my girls picking up on their own, so I might choose something that lends itself to short read-aloud sessions a little more if I knew they’d get a “taste” for the time period on their own anyway. Still, it’s a good story and one I’m glad we shared together. (Macmillan, 1931)