Book Review: Using Historical Fiction as a Guide to Writing – The Bronze Arch

Budding young writers learn a great deal by using historical fiction as writing prompts and incorporating many themes that form a unit of study. To demonstrate this, we will use The Brazen Arch by Elizabeth George Speare, who lived from 1908 to 1994. This book won the 1962 Newbery Medal.

Literature and Vocabulary: Students should learn that historical fiction has a story that sprang from the author’s imagination in a historical setting. For The Bronze Arch, we need to know that a small town in Palestine near Capernaum during Christ’s life forms the SET for the time and place of the story.

CHARACTERS in The Bronze Bow include: Daniel, his sister Leah; Joel and his twin sister Thacia, Joel and Thacia’s father, an important rabbi; Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15), Rosh, Samson; Marcus, the young Roman soldier and Jesus. According to the Bible, we know that Jesus lived and the story refers to that Jesus. Simon the Zealot, a disciple, followed Jesus in the Scriptures and in history. Most of the other names appear often in scripture or general historical writing, but Speare probably used them because they fit the setting.

The TITLE and SUBJECT come from Psalm 18:33-35, “He makes my feet like the feet of deer, And sets me on my high places. He teaches my hands to make war, That my arms may bend a bow of bronze.” You have also given me the shield of your salvation, your right hand has upheld me, your meekness has made me great.”

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, ZEALOT, a noun means “a person who has strong feelings about something (such as religion or politics) and who wants other people to have those feelings.”

Furthermore, according to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, a fanatic is: “A sect of Jews that originated with Judas the Gaulonite (Acts 5:37). They refused to pay tribute to the Romans, on the ground that this was a violation from the principle that God was the only king of Israel. They rebelled against the Romans, but soon scattered and became a lawless band of mere bandits.”

Other topics one can address with this book include math (talking about the distances between the town and Capernaum); Occupational Education / History (explore about the occupations of the time – blacksmith, rabbi); Science/Health (explore the healing practices of the time), Art/Music (make a model of the area; explore the music of the Jews of the time), and Physical Education (walk 3 miles to see how long it would take to get from the village to Capernaum).

the bronze arch

by Elizabeth George Speare

Elizabeth George Speare opens The Brazen Arch with our main character on the mountain with Rosh, a fanatic. When the Romans killed Daniel’s parents years before, he decided to join a band of zealots under the leadership of Rosh. This young man followed Rosh believing that when the time was right, they would defeat the Romans. Throughout the book we see Daniel progress in his understanding of how the Jews would be free from the Romans. During the story, we follow Daniel, as a follower of Rosh, the Zealot on the mountain; as a resource for Rosh, in the town and Daniel, as a follower of Christ, in the town.

Daniel meets Joel and Thacia while exploring the dangerous mountainous area before his family moves to Capernaum. He warns them to stay away from this area. Joel remembers that Daniel had left his apprenticeship as a blacksmith in disgrace. Daniel firmly believes in Rosh’s mission to restore Israel’s self-government without the Romans who killed Daniel’s parents. Also, Joel promises Rosh that when the time comes he will take advantage of Rosh for the mission. After they leave, Rosh senses Daniel on his first solo job to capture a slave who would answer only to Daniel in the end. Many did not like Rosh stealing and capturing to allow them to mount the attack at the Rosh deemed the right time.

We then learn that Daniel’s grandmother has died and he must return to town to take care of his sister, Leah. She never leaves her house and cannot tolerate visitors. Daniel can now return freely because the blacksmith he had been apprenticed to had died. Simon the Zealot, also a blacksmith, wanted to follow Jesus, so he gave his tent and his house to Daniel. That allowed Daniel to work and take care of Leah. Daniel and Joel have jobs to do for Rosh while still living in their respective homes. Thacia and the young men meet and make a pact using the verse from the Psalm as their motto, “That my arms may bend a bow of bronze,” though they did not fully understand it. Surprisingly, Thacia and Leah become friends. Much sacrifice ensues as Daniel continues to believe that under Rosh’s leadership, the Israelites will drive out the Romans.

Daniel, Thacia and Joel find many opportunities to hear Jesus speak. At first they find it hard to understand what he teaches. Finally, Daniel, Leah, Joel and Thacia understand and recognize that the kingdom that Jesus spoke of was spiritual, not physical. Jesus heals Leah physically and everyone spiritually. Rosh didn’t have the answer, but Jesus did.

Elizabeth George Speare does an excellent job of putting the reader into the story and the setting. We see how Daniel and others progress from hatred to revenge and finally to reconciliation. Jesus changes lives.

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