The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare (1961)

My Edition:bronzebow
Title: The Bronze Bow
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1961
Pages: 254
Plot summary


“—He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.”


When I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond last year, Elizabeth George Speare drew me into 17th century colonial Connecticut by her attention to historical detail and engaging writing style. I would say Speare surpassed herself in The Bronze Bow set during the time of Jesus in 1st century Palestine. This is the story of tormented Daniel bar Jamin, a young renegade blacksmith whose hatred for the Roman occupation of his ancestral land fuels his every waking moment. Sold to an abusive blacksmith at age 13 when there wasn’t enough food for the family, he fled to the mountains above his town 5 years later and joined a group of like-minded warriors. He is now 18 and he and the other young men are restless to fight, but the leader of the group, Rosh, keeps putting them off sending them out only to raid the fields of their Jewish neighbors telling the young fighters they need to gather more men before they can take action against the Romans.

When word comes to Daniel that his grandmother is dying leaving his sister alone, he puts his warrior plans on hold and moves back into the city to take care of Leah. It has been five years since Daniel saw his sister and grandmother. When he knocks on the door Leah is cowering in a corner and he realizes at 15, she is still traumatized over the unbearable experience of watching their father die by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Daniel’s mother stayed with him on the hill and later died of exposure. Five-year old Leah escaped from a neighbor’s house and was found at the crosses for an undetermined length of time. But it was long enough to give her nightmares and a fear of all people.

The town’s blacksmith Simon, called the Zealot, tells Daniel he wants to leave his business and follow a new preacher named Jesus. He is not sure how long he will be gone, but tells Daniel he can use his shop, the tools and materials as his own and move into the house connected to it. After much persuasion and the kindness of neighbors who build her a litter, Leah is carried like a queen to her new home. Daniel attracts a wide clientele with the skills he perfected on the mountain and is able to provide good food and clothing for Leah for the first time in her life. He also begins recruiting a band of youth who are itching to fight the Romans who he hopes will strengthen Rosh’s group.

Meanwhile, Daniel has renewed a friendship with a boy he knew from school. When Joel and his sister Malthace hear about the warrior group they, too, want to fight. Boy, girl it doesn’t matter, they all want the Romans out! However, their family is moving to Capernaum and Joel is supposed to go away for rabbinical studies.

It is against this backdrop of violence and hatred that Daniel first hears Jesus speak. He is confused when Jesus addresses the crowd and talks about building the Kingdom of God, which is what he wants, but Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t seem to come with a war, so how would it get built? And Joel is confused because Jesus says things that don’t sound like a rabbi, “He practically said it was alright to eat without washing our hands. Perhaps it’s dangerous to even listen to him. And yet—.”

And yet, against everything Daniel and Joel have lived for, the righteous actions against the oppressor and the righteousness of the Law, they are at once drawn then repelled over and over by what Jesus says. The first crack in Daniel’s emotional armor comes when his friend Simon the Zealot, the former fighter for Israel has decided to give up his shop and everything else about his past life and follow Jesus. He tries to explain to Daniel what has changed, but Daniel is incensed.

“Supposed they put chains on all of you and drag you off to prison.”

“He [Jesus] says that the only chains that matter are fear and hate, because they chain our souls. If we do not hate anyone and do not fear anyone, then we are free.”

In the end, Daniel’s hate could not be sustained…

This novel is so rich in the details of 1st century daily life and Jewish ritual during the time of the Temple. Food, clothing, commerce and the different ways in which people react to the Roman occupation make this novel very realistic. Speare treats the complexity of feelings that Jesus’ words bring to the various characters with depth and honesty as they struggle to make sense of their long-held beliefs.

Speare won the 1962 Newbery Medal for The Bronze Bow, a young adult novel suitable for adults 🙂

Classic Club, Back to the Classics, Mount TBR


8 thoughts on “The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare (1961)

  1. I’ve been trying to find an award-winning classic for the Back to the Classics reading challenge. I had considered this one, but chose another, which I then had to lay aside unfinished. Thanks for this review – I may choose this one after all.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the idea of a novel that aims to capture the historic background of first century Palestine without presenting Jesus in an anachronistic way; and it sounds as if Speare, by focusing on a character we can really empathise with, allows us to view a charismatic teacher at a tangent and to appreciate what a revolutionary message he brought.

    The 60s really do seem to have been a time when many authors — I’m thinking here of Mary Renault and Rosemary Sutcliff, from the limited reading experience of my boyhood — made us look at famous figures from our past without them being presented to us as pre-welded to a pedestal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I find so much of the strength of this book in the details of the larger world, the variety of people and what they thought of their situation and how to improve it versus what Jesus said. It’s an important scenario even to this day.

      And to your point, this Jesus is tired, sweaty and somewhat frustrated, which seems more real than the blue-eyed figure in clean robes of so many pictures!

      I think the 60s made us look at a lot things in a more realistic way, which makes sense it would happen in literature, too.

      I was introduced to Renault in college, but I am not familiar with Sutcliff. I may have to rectify that situation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sutcliff is principally known as a YA author (though that’s not the term they would have used then, more likely ‘juvenile’) but I don’t know if she wrote adult novels. There was a recent-ish (and rather average) film ‘The Eagle’ which, set in Roman Britain, was based on one of her books.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Madeleine L’Engle has addressed this notion when she would be asked about why she writes ‘children’s books’, but of course I can’t find or remember exactly what. Bhe didn’t consider that’s what she did. She just wrote novels (about space and science and fantasy) and felt young people were more open to those ideas because they weren’t closed off to new ways of seeing the world like adults and didn’t fear challenges to tradition.

          Since I missed out on many so-called children’s books as a child and young person and am reading them for the first time as an adult, her thoughts give me comfort and justification! I think the YA label is just a good marketing tool and has no real meaning for me….

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’m with you on that: I don’t tag my reviews of YA novels as such at all — a good novel is a good novel, regardless of who the target audience is or isn’t — though I do tag genre fiction, just in the hopes of attracting new readers.

            Liked by 1 person

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