Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick--a review

On a historical kick this fall, I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. This book is Philbrick’s examination of the voyage of the Mayflower, the settlement of Plymouth Colony, and fifty years later, what came to be known as “King Philip’s War”, the bloody conflict that erupted between the English settlers and the Indians they displaced.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book—it was never dry, it was actually a page-turner. Philbrick is a very good storyteller, and he really makes the characters come alive. The book is a bit of a myth-buster, which is always entertaining, but Philbrick also attempts to be fair in the portrayal of both the Pilgrims’ and the Indians’ issues. This was what was so engaging and entertaining for me. I had not really read anything on this subject since learning about it in high school. So Philbrick’s examination of the Indians’ side of things, and his use of really interesting diaries and other primary sources, were eye-opening.

I think I’ll let Philbrick do the talking, as he sums up his book quite well himself. The Pilgrims, who had not been free to worship as they pleased in Restoration England, had moved to Holland, but were afraid of assimilating there, so they planned to move to America. Philbrick summarizes their early experiences, coming to an area of New England where the Indian population had recently been decimated by plague:

The Pilgrims had come to America not to conquer a continent but to re-create their modest communities in Scrooby and in Leiden. When they arrived at Plymouth in December 1620 and found it emptied of people, it seemed as if God had given them exactly what they were looking for. But as they quickly discovered during that first terrifying fall and winter, New England was far from uninhabited. There were still plenty of Native people, and to ignore or anger them was to risk annihilation. The Pilgrims’ religious beliefs played a dominant role in the decades ahead, but it was their deepening relationship with the Indians that turned them into Americans.

By forcing the English to improvise, the Indians prevented Plymouth Colony from ossifying into a monolithic cult of religious extremism. For their part, the Indians were profoundly influenced by the English and quickly created a new and dynamic culture full of Native and Western influences. For a nation that has come to recognize that one of its greatest strengths is its diversity, the first fifty years of Plymouth Colony stand as a model of what American might have been from the very beginning.

By the midpoint of the seventeenth century, however, the attitudes of many of the Indians and English had begun to change. With only a fraction of their original homeland remaining, more and more young Pokanokets claimed it was time to rid themselves of the English. The Pilgrims’ children, on the other hand, coveted what territory the Pokanokets still possessed and were already anticipating the day when the Indians had, through the continued effects of disease and poverty, ceased to exist. Both sides had begun to envision a future that did not include the other.

And so the stage is set for King Philip’s War, a war that upset the delicate balance between the English and the native peoples, and changed their relationship forever. And afterward, the English practices, while not out and out war, effectively wiped out or relocated the Indians, so that ultimately the English owned America.

Overall, I enjoyed Philbrick’s fresh take on this historical territory, and his engaging storytelling style.


Anonymous said...

as you know, i LOVED this book. as you say, it absolutely was a page turner, amazing for a work of history. i want my kids to read this one.....

jenclair said...

I love good history and this certainly sounds good. The excerpt you included is particularly interesting, because although we know that the Pilgrims came hoping to recreate their English communities, I've never stopped to wonder what America would have been like if they had been able to more closely follow the English sensibility.

What a shame that man's typical flaws interfered with the original Indian/English relationship and that greed for more land led to the disintegration of that relationship. This one sounds really good!

Gentle Reader said...

jen--I think you're right, my kids should read this one. Good idea!

jenclair--You're so right, what a shame! This book made me really think about things that might have been, which was part of what made it such an interesting read.