The Road from Bellhaven by Margot Livesey

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Having admired The Boy in the Field, I was excited to read Margot Livesey’s new book that was published in February. It is the story of Lizzie Craig, from her childhood in rural Scotland in the 1880s and 1890s to her adulthood in Glasgow and Fife, near Edinburgh. She was cared for by her grandparents as her parents had died when she was very young. When she was 10, she learned she had an older sister who then came to live with them.

Lizzie was a promising student, a hard worker on the family farm, and able to adjust to having a sister who had to be taught about farm life. The focus was on both the beauty of farm life and on their desperate poverty. We learn that despite all their hard work, they often had only porridge to eat.

Lizzie had second sight:  occasionally pictures came to her of an event in the future that depicted a disaster for someone or some animal in their circle. She “saw” their beloved horse dying of lockjaw which later occurred despite Lizzie’s efforts to protect the animal.

At some point I began to wonder if I had overlooked the book’s designation as a Middle Grade book with the goal of presenting the joys and hardships of living in rural Scotland in the Victorian Era with a little fantasy thrown in. After I began writing this post, I looked at the Amazon listing and saw the phrase, “Ages:  9 years and up.” I read several reviews and saw no indication that it was meant to be a  Middle Grade book. The NYT review did, however, have reservations. The reviewer says, “The third-person narration, often charmingly populated with historical detail, exposition and dialogue, leaves little space for Lizzie’s interiority to develop on the page.” We certainly learn about technology and writers of the time, as well as the striking landscape of Scotland.

I had abandoned the supposition that this was a Middle Grade book given the complications that occur as Lizzie becomes a young adult. She becomes pregnant, her boyfriend is faithless, and she chooses to leave her baby with aging grandparents without warning them. I did want to learn how events played out and was not tempted to stop reading.

I noticed that all the hymns Lizzie mentioned were familiar to me. The continuity between the church music in Victorian Era Scotland and mid-20th century Northern Virginia Presbyterian churches is striking.

Margot Livesey, The Road from Belhaven, Knopf, 2024, 272 pages (I listened to the audiobook).

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