I imagine Calico Bush by Rachel Field is not at the top of many people’s reading lists. But it should be!
This is the second time I’ve read through Calico Bush, but it will certainly not be my last. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this story.
Marguerite is an orphaned French girl who travels from France to the New World with her last remaining relatives, Grandmere and Oncle Pierre. (I apologize to my French-speaking readers. I don’t know how to add the accents to the French words.) Right before they reach land, her cheerful Oncle Pierre succumbs to a mysterious illness which travels through the ship with lightening speed. When he dies, his body and all his worldly goods are tossed into the sea. Marguerite manages to snatch up a brass button from his coat which rolled across the deck away from watchful eyes.
After they land, Grandmere also dies and Marguerite is left completely on her own – with only Oncle Pierre’s brass button and Grandmere’s ring as mementos of her family. Soon, she’s required to become a ‘Bound-Out Girl’ to a family heading to a new homestead in Maine.
Throughout the book, Marguerite faces not only the challenges of homesteading, but the biting comments of the family members. They hate that she’s French (the book is set during the French and Indian War), look down on her because she isn’t one of their family, and resent any little rest she manages to snatch.
In spite of all that, Marguerite’s quiet force of character comes through in many difficult situations. She saves the family’s cattle, discovers secrets of their homestead and even single-handedly saves the entire family from an Indian massacre with her uncle’s button and a maypole.
There is heartbreak in this book as well. In addition to Oncle Pierre and Grandmere, the family she lives with loses their baby. It’s a dramatic, difficult and upsetting scene – too much for sensitive young children, although my 2nd- and 4th-graders handled it better than I did. (Keep reading Mom! Why are you crying? What happens next?) It’s also a large part of the plot, so impossible to skip.
This coming-of-age story is dramatic, heart-breaking and yet strengthening as well. I found myself absorbing some of Marguerite’s strength as I read Calico Bush. And I almost cheered at the end of the book when the father recognizes 13-year-old Marguerite’s contributions to the family:
” ‘You’ve been a good girl, Maggie,” he told her, “an’ a brave one. I ain’t said much, but I know grit when I see it, an’ you’ve got more’n your share.” She flushed with pleasure, and after a slight pause he went on. “I’ve talked it over with Dolly an’ Ira. We want to do the right thing by you, an’ it only seems fair to let you go to your folks when the chance comes.’ “
Calico Bush deserves a place on reading lists and library shelves for boys and girls 10 and up. Younger children will also enjoy it, as long as it’s read a loud to them. Unfortunately it’s not available as an audio book (please Aladdin Paperbacks – make it into an audio book!).