Sarah Bishop

Sarah Bishop by Scott O’Dell

Sarah Bishop’s brother is headed off to war.  Her father remains loyal to the king (sound familiar?)  When a local men form a raiding party they tar and feather her father, killing him for his beliefs.  Sarah is determine to find her brother and sets out on a journey that leads her to New York City.  Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, she is hunted by British soldiers and must be constantly vigilant lest she be captured.  She eventually finds peace living in a cave in the woods.

Scott O’Dell is truly fond of a survival novel, isn’t he?  Nothing he really enjoys more than dropping a girl in the wilderness and seeing what happens.  Despite being jam packed with action (Raiding parties! Evil British officers! Wanted notices! Indians! Snake bites!  Potential rapists! Bears! Witch trials!) the pace is pretty slow, with O’Dell reveling in the details of daily life in a cave.

This is somewhat alarmingly (fascinatingly?) based on the life of a real Sarah Bishop.  It’s worth noting that her real life story is even sadder than how O’Dell scripted it. This entry from the Ridgefield, CT Discovery Center mentions that Bishop was subject to an “evil act”.  Many other sites (including this blog entry which includes some citations) go ahead and specify that she was raped, possibly repeatedly.  While O’Dell has edited this down to one attempted rape (little more than a fumble with the bodice strings is reported unless I totally missed something) the trauma from the situation seems significant. It’s worth knowing about the historical suppositions because depending on the age group, you may not want your reader(s) investigating the true story, or at least navigating it independently.

Whether it was in deference to the real life end to Sarah’s story (short version: she lives in the cave her whole life) or just his own whim, O’Dell doesn’t write an ending that is particularly satisfying.  The book sort of drops off into nothingness.  It irked me as an adult, although I’ve grown more used to endings like this, but it would have driven me absolutely mad as a teen.  I would have been very frustrated to have invested that much time in a book and then not have the ends all wrapped up nicely.

I also can’t say much for O’Dell’s depiction of Indians.  If you’re not familiar with Oyate, it’s a great resource for helping you evaluate books for bias in the portrayal of native peoples.  O’Dell’s Indians are caricatures. No tribe is mentioned, they’re just Indians.  One communicates with grunts and others that appear do not speak in proper English sentences: “Indians like ’em Quakers.”

Sex, Nudity, Dating – A man tells her that a girl traveling alone must have “ideas” and pins her up against a wagon.  He attempts to open the front of her dress.
Profanity – A black woman is referred to as a “Negro” and a “Negress.”  Not profane perhaps, but not the preferred language, which is strange because later O’Dell goes on to refer to a “Black” woman (complete with capital B). “Faggot” is used to mean a bundle of sticks for burning, a definition that does not always come up when searched. “hell,”
Death, Violence and Gore – A man was sent to the gallows. A neighbor shoots his musket at them because they are Tories.  Her mother died (prior to the war/start of the book).  The miller implies that her father is in danger of being killed. A man is hit over the head and later dies from the wound.  A woman is held by her thumbs until she gives information.  Father hits Chad.  The book mentions that Henry the VIII beheaded two of his wives. A barn is set on fire, all the animals perish.   A mare’s throat is slit.  Sarah is tied to a tree trunk.  A man is tarred and feathered, he does not survive.  Hessians brag about running people through with their bayonets.  Cannons are fired.  The air smells of dead soldiers for days because they remain unburied after a battle. The prisoners on ships are sick and starving.  Sarah’s brother dies on one.  She shoots deer for food.  A story is told about how an Indian village was burned and over 200 Indians killed. A muskrat is caught in a trap and has gnawed off one front paw and is trying to gnaw off the other.  A man is caught in a bear trap.  A bible story is told where a man dies from having nail hammered through his temple.  A family’s baby died during the winter.  She dreams of a bear biting off her head. An accused witch is beaten bloody with a whip. Another accused witch is tied to the back of a wagon and whipped as she’s dragged out of town.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – Sarah’s older brother and another boy come home drunk off rum. Sarah serves alcohol at a tavern. A man drinks Madeira from a jug.  Land is sold for a barrel of “something to drink.”
Frightening or Intense Things – The property of those loyal to the king is burned.  A man shot a wildcat, but a woman has a bloodied bandaged hand the next morning.  There is an implication of witchcraft. Sarah is captured and accused of crimes.  Sarah is in a position where she has to rescue, aide and shelter her would-be attacker.  A family owns slaves.  Sarah is bitten by a poisonous snake.
Religion – Sarah struggles with her faith. At one point she tears out a page of the bible and burns it.

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