November 24, 2011

History by Three: Colonial New England


Geraldine Brooks has written another gripping novel -- this time set in seventeeth century New England. Caleb's Crossing is based on one true fact: in 1665 a young man named Caleb became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. The story of Caleb is told by his friend Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a Puritan minister and granddaughter of the leader of the settlement on Martha's Vineyard. The story of Caleb and Bethia's unusual, and unlikely, friendship is poignant -- both of them suffer many losses as they journey together from Martha's Vineyard to Boston in a quest for higher knowledge.

Bethia is a really likeable character, and her narration is engrossing -- you fall into the rhythm of her hardworking days, and can feel her frustration with the status of women in Puritan society, and her hesitant interest in Caleb's Native American beliefs, even though they're diametrically opposed to her strict Christian background. I've liked all of Geraldine Brooks's books, in spite of her trademark bittersweet endings, and this one is no exception -- beautifully written, meticulously researched, absolutely enjoyable. Rating: 4.3 out of 5


Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War tells the dark side of the Mayflower story. He starts in the usual place: with Puritan and Pilgrim congregations in England and Leyden, telling the story of why they resorted to the extreme step of sailing off to colonize an unknown land. All the elements of the traditional Pilgrim story are here: the starving time, the aid of Samoset and Squanto, the squabbles among different factions within the Plymouth settlement. But then Philbrick continues the story for the next fifty years after the landing. The first time I read this, I was astounded to realize that I was completely ignorant of a 100 year swath of American history. My knowledge base was blank from the end of the initial Plymouth settlement (1640ish) to the beginning of the French and Indian wars (1740ish)...



If, like I was, you are unfamiliar with King Philip's War -- it's a tragic tale. The Pilgrims were initially friendly with the Wampanoag tribe, and in particular their chief -- Massasoit. But skirmishes were inevitable as the Pilgrims began to infringe on Native territories and eventually the Native Americans rose up in protest. They were led by "King Philip" (Chief Metacomet, son of Massasoit) and fought a brutal and bloody war from 1675-1676. In that short amount of time, Plymouth Colony lost almost 10% of its men to the war. And that was nothing compared to the Indian losses -- their population was reduced by about 70%-- including 1,000 who were captured and sold into slavery by the Pilgrims.*

Philbrick does an excellent job detailing how the Pilgrims went from kindly to murderous, and how the Native Americans went from extending cautious friendship to rampaging through Puritan towns. It's a sad story, but a must read for anyone interested in American history (or anyone interested in ethnic studies, and the tensions between white and native groups that exist to this day). Rating: 4 out of 5

Constance: A story of Early Plymouth, by Patricia Clapp, is a wonderful fictionalized coming-of-age story starring Constance Hopkins, a real historical figure who sailed on the Mayflower with her family. Constance is fifteen when they land in New England, and is resentful that her father dragged them here to this forbidding land. Her stepmother realizes she's homesick for London, and gives her a journal to write her story in. Constance spends the next six years of her life detailing the hardships endured (including the deaths of two of her halfsiblings), relationships with the Indians, her flirtations and romances, and her changing feelings about this new land they've begun to claim.

I loved this book in late elementary school, and still greatly enjoyed it on a recent re-read. As a fourth or fifth grader I mostly noticed the 'boy' aspect of the story (Constance manages to kiss four men during the book**, including her eventual husband), and the typical Pilgrim stuff -- Squanto, Thanksgiving, etc. But when I reread it I noticed surprisingly deep, and accurate, historical details -- about William Bradford's governance, settler relations with the Wampanoag, and Captain Standish's slaughter of innocent warriors. I highly recommend this book for both its historical accuracy and its readability. Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Happy Thanksgiving! Have you read much about Puritan New England? I almost picked The Witch of Blackbird Pond as my kid choice instead of Constance, because I love that one too. What books about New England or the Mayflower can you recommend?

*This fact just boggles my mind. I always thought of the Pilgrims as heroic till I read some of the awful details of this book. 
**Seems a bit forward for a Pilgrim girl!

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