Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Viking Adult, 2006) contrasts and interweaves two themes. First, the struggle of the Pilgrims to find a place to settle and worship as their conscience dictated. When they decided that Leiden, in the Netherlands, was no better than England, they chose to go to the New World. The first group travels over to New England on the Mayflower. Other groups follow. Initially they live in terrible conditions. Disease wipes out half the group during the first winter, but they persevere. Their society evolves as it enlarges, especially as outsiders gradually join them. They are not religiously tolerant, they don’t like nonconformity, and they are devious and bloodthirsty in their dealings with the Indians. Of course, the Indians are more than capable of bloodthirstiness and deviousness themselves, especially since they are struggling to survive, especially as it becomes clear that to the Puritans the Indians are not a people to be accommodated but rather are a people in the way. The second theme, no surprise, is the changing, evolving relationship of the Puritans and the Indians to live with, accommodate each other. Ultimately, the native tribes of new England resist these new occupants of lands where they’d lived for centuries, and disastrous wars result.

Philbrick’s account of the Puritans is detailed and highly readable. The book’s narrative force is one of its great attributes. Philbrick is an elegantly descriptive writer of a straightforward, unadorned prose. He relies on other historians, journal entries, letters, and an assortment of primary and secondary documents, yet the book is not overridden with footnotes and scholarly references (these are documented in the book’s final section).

The Mayflower, the early Puritans, the first colonies in Massachusetts are the subject of a deeply engrained national mythology. This book brings welcome and chastening illumination to the story.

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