Now, I figured, while I’m on a Revolutionary War kick, I might as well do this gem that I picked up in a Kingston used bookstore.
Book: Sarah Bishop, by Scott O’Dell, 1980. I have a very clear, very distinct memory of absolutely loving this book when I first came across it, which must have been in about Grade 5 or so. The book struck me like a live wire, so there must be some memory there. But even when reading the blurb on the back of the book I can’t remember anything about it, so this should be an entertaining reread.
Sarah lives with her father and brother, Chad, on a farm, and her father is a Loyalist. Her father and brother are apparently butting heads over the Cause, although Chad appears to be on the side of Everyone Keep Your Hair On And Your Skin Attached. Sarah goes to the mill to have some of their corn, and the miller tells her that the local chimney sweep has spotted the picture of King George that her father keeps on their wall. I imagine this is not a good thing, if it’s something to be warned about. The miller thinks that there’s something hinky going on with his mill, since it stops and starts erratically, and in those days before things like your computer and Internet connection went on and off erratically, it usually had a human cause.
It seems like the miller’s bigger problem is that the Bishops are poor—or are at least playing like they’re poor. Sarah’s father admits to her that he’s been burying silver he earned tinkering for some of the other villagers, but won’t tell Sarah where to protect her.
Chad comes home one day with a copy of Common Sense by Thomas Paine, and an ardent Patriot friend of his. After arguing with his father, Chad bursts out that he’s enlisted in the local militia—although it seems quite the sea change to have gone from “meh, the war” to a full-blown enlistee. Their father smacks him a few times and tries to talk him out of it, but since I don’t think a parent has successfuly talked a teenager out of a hotheaded decision in all of human history, it’s useless. Off Chad goes.
That week at church, their local preacher preaches against the war as a conflict between brothers—and when the congregation leaves, the horses and wagons of the Loyalist families have been stolen. Sarah’s father, as you may have figured, does not take this loss well.
I’m still wondering when I’m going to start remembering this book because this is all brand-new to me.
One evening when Sarah and her father are at home reading from their Bible and discussing the nature of forgiveness, there’s a knock at the door, and it turns out to be one of the local patriots. He’d heard that Sarah’s father tore up a copy of Common Sense—which did happen—and wants to give Mr. Bishop a lesson in the appropriate ways of thinking. With a band of his friends, they torch the Bishop home and barn, tie Sarah to a tree, and tar and feather her father. (Is it really a Revolutionary War book if there isn’t an episode of tarring and feathering?)
A local widow, Mrs. Jessop, takes them in and they try to remove the tar, but Sarah’s father dies. Okay. Tarring and feathering was a pretty miserable and painful form of punishment, but they didn’t use roofing tar, they used pine tar—and people were certainly left abraded and very injured afterwards, but nobody died from it in Revolutionary times.
Sarah returns to their home, there’s nothing left—she takes the clothes she’s wearing and a Bible and heads to the nearest inn to look for work, because she has nothing.
The owner of the tavern takes her in to cook, and the tavern is currently overrun with militia soldiers, but the owner reminds her that they’re neutral and he doesn’t want to get drawn in one way or another. I cannot blame him. Sarah keeps trying to get word to her brother, and one soldier eventually says he knows Chad, but Chad doesn’t appear. What do appear are a number of British officers, in town for the forthcoming battle, and Sarah gets promoted to barmaid and later to wig-powderer. While powdering one major’s wig, he says her brother may be a prisoner, and offers to get word to him somehow.
Seriously, when am I going to start remembering this book? I had such a visceral reaction to the cover that I must have read it at some point but this is all totally new to me.
So it turns out that Chad is in prison, and Sarah goes to visit him but isn’t allowed to see him. So she gives him a chunk of her wages so he can have some more to eat. That evening she’s too far to go back to her job, so she stays at an inn that…burns down? It’s supposed to be exciting but the whole section is written in this super anticlimactic style. And then a fire brigade turns out to extinguish the fire, but a group of men carrying knives come running out of the forest and slice the leather buckets, ruining them, and then running away again. And Sarah picks up one of the knives they drop, and when the British soldiers turn up they grab Sarah and stuff her into a wagon with a bunch of other shrieking women and take her to jail.
Honestly, all of this is written in such a strange style it’s hard to get excited about anything.
When she’s in jail, a British officer tells her that her brother was never in that prison, he’s being held on a prison ship off the coast, and that it looks like she slashed those buckets so the fire would spread to the prison and burn it down and free her brother. I must concur that it does look suspicious. While she’s in jail, another officer offers to take her out to the ship to see her brother, and we pause for a brief discussion of the difference between a river and an estuary for no reason I can see. The river thing is made even more strange because on the next page we learn that Chad is dead and died just hours ago.
They row her back to the shore, but she manages to “slip over the side” and make her way to shore, despite her inability to swim. I’m not entirely sure how she manages to go twelve yards without swimming, but she does, and she makes it to shore and flees in the woods to the inn where she had been working before. Back there, they hide her away in the cellar with some food and water in case the soldiers come again, and shockingly—they do.
In the dead of the night she steals away to her old home, and Mrs. Jessop refuses to take the Bible back. It turns out Mrs. Jessop is a bit of a nutter herself and while a storm rages and lightning strikes, she urges Sarah “Repent! Repent!” and Sarah gets the hell out of that creepy place. She builds a little fire in the woods in a cave, and takes out the page from the Bible that urges you to love thine enemy, and she burns that page in the fire. This is the most dramatic scene in the whole damn book already, and that’s including a couple of house fires and prison scenes.
The next morning she takes a ferry across the river, and the ferryman sells her a Brown Bess musket. Further up the river in White Plains she finds a job in a tavern and sells her hair to a wigmaker. (Hair selling seems to be a particularly popular motif in Revolutionary War books, I see.) But they end up evacuating because there’s going to be a battle nearby, and she takes up a wagon being driven by a man named Sam Goshen, and I remembered that! Something more interesting must be coming!
OH NO. I think this made such an impression on me because Sam Goshen tries to rape her. I mean, this is a book for kids, so he doesn’t get any further than cornering her in the woods and fumbling with the bodice of her dress, but he’s so startled by her short hair that he gets distracted and she grabs her musket and steals the man’s horse to get away.
Then at another tavern she runs into a runaway slave, who encourages Sarah to keep going north and west, and she does. She stops to buy an axe and some flour and gunpowder and shot, and then just starts walking. Walking walking walking. Off she goes until she finds her way to a cave late at night, and in the morning she discovers it’s been used as someone’s home before, as evidenced by the cave paintings and the broken pottery and the fire circle in the middle. Good deductive reasoning.
She finds a baby bat and decides to raise it as a pet. What. Can you even raise a bat from a baby, and is there any point in raising a pet that sleeps all day and flies around all night?
Sarah finds a bunch of acorns and grinds them into flour, which sounds like the kind of thing that you could buy at Whole Foods for a zillion dollars a pound. She also manages to shoot a deer, although it glosses pretty quickly over the fact that a musket is a notoriously difficult shot, she’s new at it, and deer don’t usually stand around waiting for you to reload after you try the first time.
She meets an Indian, who gets the message across that all this land that Sarah is squatting on is his. He tries to take her axe, and when she refuses to hand it over, he tries to take it anyway—so she points Brown Bess at him and cocks it, to which he panics and gets the hell out.
Winter comes and snow falls, and Sarah tries and fails to make a door and spends a lot of time in her cave by the fire. Then she has some visitors—a couple and two kids, and the woman introduces herself with “My name is Helen. And this is my husband, John Longknife. My little girl is named Bertha. The baby has no name yet. We are waiting for a better moon. Then we will give her a name.” As people do in this book, speak incredibly stiltedly to total strangers.
Helen and John are incredibly generous, and while they visit her for a few days they do all kinds of stuff for her. John cuts down a tree and makes her a dugout canoe, for heaven’s sake! Helen offers to show her all kinds of things to gather, John makes her a pair of snowshoes, and then together they build her a door with a lock. A lock!
When they go Sarah is left all alone again, and she comes across a muskrat caught in a trap that’s busy gnawing off its own paws to get away. She gets it out of the trap, but rather than shooting it to put it out of its misery and eating it, she nurses it back to health. She discovers the trap belongs to Sam Goshen—it’s engraved with his name—so clearly she didn’t walk far enough away.
The next day after that she goes along the trap line again, and she finds Sam Goshen with his leg in his own bear trap. At first Sarah walks away, but then comes back and gives him some snow to eat and then helps him pry the trap open and free himself. He says the poisoned meat he used to bait the trap is getting into his blood, and Sarah tries to help him get to the nearest town—and useless Sam collapses halfway there. Sarah drags him to her cave, not wanting to just let him die there, which hey, is probably better than I would have done for someone who had tried to rape me.
She feeds Sam and looks after him, and cooks him venison when he asks for it, and Sam continues to be a monstrous creep and leers at her. (Sarah, you should have just let him rot in the bear trap.) She tells him that John Longknife is coming back sometime, which seems to discomfit Sam a bit but not enough to get him motivated to leave.
She reads to Sam from the Bible, to which he offers some commentary, and then he hobbles out to try to shoot a deer. He doesn’t, of course, and then he leaves, and once again this entire book is written in such a strange and dull style that nothing seems to have any particular impact on Sarah at all.
In the spring Sarah is out of money and food, so she heads up towards the nearest town and works as cook there for a bit. She earns enough for some flour and gunpowder and heads back home, where John Longknife and Helen come for a visit. They tell her about a nearby rock formation that looks like a British castle, and when they leave Sarah decides to go and visit it. When she goes she gets bitten by a rattlesnake—but again, everything in this book is so weirdly written that it’s hard to even tell.
She manages to make her way to the canoe and lies there for a few days, hallucinating. But again—it’s hard to tell what she’s hallucinating because this damn book is so weirdly written.
Helen and John come back later and look after Sarah until she’s feeling better, and then mention that the son of the storekeeper in town invited her to a Quaker meeting. She goes, probably more to see some more humans than anything else, and finds that the Quaker meeting is basically a discussion of how there is an evil presence there (and also a Quaker man frees his two slaves, which is weird that a Quaker would own slaves in the first place at all, because the Quakers were extremely anti-slavery and starting in 1774 were no longer allowed to own slaves and remain a part of the larger Quaker community. I feel like I may be nitpicking here).
Because all the witchcraft stuff is creeping her out, Sarah tries to leave, and they grab her and pull her back. The constable grabs her and hauls her into jail “for protection,” which Sarah doesn’t buy for a hot second. The storekeeper’s son comes to free her and tells her that his father has been creeped out by Sarah since the first time he met her and that Sarah’s best bet would be to leave. Sarah says she won’t—and agrees to come to another Meeting the next day. (Sarah, don’t do it.)
Isaac, the son, goes on a bit about how seeking out witchcraft is extinct almost everywhere besides this small town, which seems awfully convenient and also strange considering that the Quakers didn’t engage in witchcraft persecution and were actively driven out of some places themselves. Well, all right.
At the Meeting six men are there to question her, including Isaac’s father and Sam Goshen, because of course. Sam testifies that Sarah talked to her pet bat and let it out at night and back in at dawn, and I think Sam maybe doesn’t understand what a bat does. Isaac tells them they’re all being ridiculous, and conveniently a post messenger stops by right then. Isaac questions him to see if all the horrible things (drought, sickness) happening in their village have also been happening in Boston, and they have. Ergo, Sarah couldn’t possibly be doing it.
They decide to let her go and Isaac asks her to come back to their Quaker meetings, and Sarah agrees and goes home to her cave.
Seriously, that’s the end? How did I ever get through this book as a kid? Because even reading it now is a painful experience.
Rating: D. Ugh. Don’t read this, it totally wasn’t worth it. The writing style is bizarre and stilted and it’s impossible to tell if anything exciting is happening because it’s so dull. Sarah just does stuff—we have no idea why, we don’t learn anything about her, and nothing is resolved. Wow.