Title: The Bronze Bow
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
Device: Trade paperback
“—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 🙂
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