Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Bronze Bow - 1962

Let me first say that I really liked Elizabeth George Speare's second Newbery winner, and I wasn’t expecting to. Set during the time of Jesus, the main character, an 18-year-old Galilean named Daniel bar Jamin, fled his home and blacksmith master five years before and has been living on a nearby mountain with outlaws who are supposedly preparing for the day the Jews will rise up against their Roman masters. Daniel’s hatred of the Romans is especially strong, given that they crucified his father, which led to his mother’s death and younger sister Leah’s regression into fear and solitude.

As the book opens, Daniel meets a brother and sister, Joel and Malthace (also called Thacia) who become a major part of the story, as does his friend Simon the Zealot, who becomes a disciple of Jesus. Daniel eventually meets Jesus and it ultimately changes his life. It’s a wonderful coming-of-age story, with the additional message of love and peace over hate and war.

The title of the book comes from Psalm 18, verse 34 (also 2 Samuel 22:35): “He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze” (p. 87). Daniel uses a drawing of a bronze bow as a sign to Joel and Thacia that he is hiding in their house in Capernaum. The verse becomes a touchstone for Daniel and a metaphor for his own internal struggle.

Others here have summarized the book adequately and pointed out many of its positive aspects. Written at a fifth-to-sixth grade reading level, the content is most appropriate for those ages and up. Narrator Mary Woods does a good job creating individual characterizations by voice without resorting to caricatures or accents.

In her Newbery acceptance speech, Speare explained that she wrote the book while teaching Sunday school because she
longed to lift the personality of Jesus off the flat and lifeless pages of our textbook. I wanted to give my pupils, and others like them, a glimpse of the divided and turbulent society of Palestine, an occupied country with many parallels in our own day. And I wanted to stir in them some personal sharing of what must have been the response of boys and girls who actually saw and heard the Carpenter from Nazareth….I longed to have them see that the preacher who walked the hills of Galilee was not a mythical figure, but a compelling and dynamic leader, a hero to whom a boy in any age would gladly offer all his loyalty.

Reading this (and the rest of her speech), it’s not surprising to learn that the book has been challenged when used as part of the curriculum in public schools. Critics said it glorifies Christianity while portraying Judaism and its rabbis in a negative light.

Recently, a group of parents in San Rafael, California, was able to convince their public school district to drop the book as required reading in seventh grade in a unit on ancient Rome (but had no problems with the book being in the library). After reading the many links on their website, I can understand their position. As much as I liked this book and would recommend it to others, and don’t think it should ever be removed from any library, I believe it should be optional supplemental reading rather than required in public schools.

[Cross-posted at my book blog, Bookin' It.]


Chain Reader said...

I read this one about a year ago, and I wondered how it was viewed by schools and parents--thanks for the info. I remember wondering if it would even be possible for a book on this subject to be a Newbery winner today.
It was a beautiful story, and a timely message.

AS50 said...

I am appalled that a professional librarian (above) would think this was a great book and that she had to read about the San Rafael school controversy before she realized the book could be offensive. It's TOTALLY offensive, it preaches Christianity and insults Judaism, and is boring as well.

Amanda (the librarian) said...

As stated in my review, I agree with the decision in San Rafael. I am entitled to my own opinion of the book, as you are of yours. You are welcome, AS50, to join the group of reviewers on this blog.