10.31.2011

November Picks: Caleb's Crossing and The Mayflower

I guess I can blame Thanksgiving, but November always puts me in the mood to learn about American history. For my selections this month, we journey to Puritan New England in Geraldine Brooks’ latest novel Caleb’s Crossing, a beautiful story about the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. To provide some context for this tale, I have chosen Nathanial Philbrick’s Mayflower, the history of the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth Rock and the pitfalls they met as they tried to create a new society in a rugged world. Philbrick continues the narrative through King Phillip’s War, a series of engagements between English settlers and Native Americans that ended the stilted peace that had existed between the two peoples

Though the novel is titled Caleb’s Crossing, the story is told from the perspective of Bethia Mayfield, the knowledge-hungry daughter of a Puritan minister. The novel is told as a series of journal entries and flashbacks that include more information about Bethia and her experiences than they do about Caleb’s. Caleb at times appears to be a minor character, but this potential mis-titling of the story, should not be off-putting. Brooks is a brilliant storyteller, and she perfectly captures the constriction of Bethia’s Purtian world, as well as the challenges of Caleb’s crossing into both Christianity and Puritan society.

Bethia first meets Caleb when he lives with this tribe on the island now known as Martha’s Vineyard. Bethia, feeling confined and misunderstood by her father - who has decided that she shouldn’t be provided the same education as her dullard brother - escapes daily from her small cottage to enjoy the freedoms of the wild, peaceful island. She meets Caleb on one of her rambles and they begin an unlikely friendship, one that will last their entire lives. Caleb teaches her about the natural world and Bethia teaches him English and about religion. This primer stands him in good stead because when it becomes clear that the Native Americans on the island will need an educated representative with the Puritans, he is conscripted to live with Bethia’s family and be prepared for matriculation at Harvard. Various hardships ensue, but Caleb eventually makes it to Harvard and graduates, while Bethia struggles on her own path.

This is a subtle novel with a slow, steady pace, a moving portrait of an intelligent girl, and a hymnal to the beauty of Martha’s Vineyard. It is also an investigation of the racism and intolerance that plagued relations between Native Americans and English settlers before, during, and after King Phillips War. Caleb’s Crossing is not the 21st century version of Puritan New England, but a faithful depiction of what life was actually like in 17th century America. Brooks' illustration is clear, historically accurate, and completely absorbing. Brooks has a talent for creating delightful texts of seamless history and literature, and her fans will be fascinated by her latest achievement.

The Mayflower

Nathanial Philbrick's The Mayflower follows the Pilgrim's adventures from the early days in England to after King Phillip's War. The history is detailed, thorough, and clear. Each chapter presents the information in a balanced way and finishes with convincing analysis. The characters from history jump from the pages, and Philbrick succeeds in making the Pilgrims' trials and tribulations real for the reader.

The book is equally divided between the founding of Plymouth colony and King Phillip's War, a lesser known war to modern Americans, but, according to Philbrick, one of the shaping events of our early history.

King Phillip's War is considered to be one of the most bloody wars in North America. To provide contrast: America lost less than 1% of its male population in World War II, 4-5% during the Civil War, but Plymouth colony lost 8% during the 14 months of King Phillip's War. Clearly, this was a devastating engagement, and despite the heavy loss, it did not correct the "Indian problem" but heightened the issue. The thick barrier of 'friendly Indians' was eliminated, laying the colony open to attack by other, presumably unfriendly, Indians farther West. While some of the Indians that fought in KPW were obviously hostile and resentful of the Pilgrims, many were friendly and relied heavily on them for trade, goods, and income. Many of these were also recent Christian converts, named Praying Indians, and they, particularly the Praying Indians on Nantucket Island, stood staunchly against King Phillip and his plans for supreme power in New England. The myth that KPW was strictly Pilgrim versus Indian is not true.

Philbrick illustrates the inconsistencies of the fabled story of Thanksgiving and corrects other misconceptions. The Indians and the Pilgrims did work together at the beginning, but it was not as beautiful and peaceful as the story the elementary school children learn would suggest. From the beginning, there was controversy between the Pilgrims and the Indians over land and resources; though for the first few decades there was a peace, largely architected through Massoit, the leader of the Pokanokets and Edward Winslow. However, even this was tenuous, as Massoit, though powerful, could not speak for the entire Indian population. This initial peace, made between friends out of a shared need for resources, ended in the next generation when Winslow's son and Massosoit's son, King Phillip, realized that there was not enough room for both Indian and Pilgrim interests.

Our perception of the Pilgrims is largely the product of subsequent generations' memories or views of the true history. In the late 1600s, Thomas Faunce, elderly and feeble, wanted to return to Plymouth to see where his father first landed. He assigned a large rock near the original colony as the first landing spot for the Pilgrims. As a result of Faunce's assignation, the myth of Plymouth Rock was born. Philbrick makes clear that there is no mention in the journals written by Pilgrims from the Mayflower of a landing on a rock; in actuality, the Pilgrims most likely pulled their small landing boats onto the beach. Nevertheless, Faunce's 'memory' was too romantic a notion to ignore. In another way, the myth of Thanksgiving sprang out of the need for a shared history during the Civil War. Lincoln commemorated this day to provide a means for the North and South to find common ground during the war. Prior to this, Thanksgiving was celebrated, in a way, on Founder's Day, which was in December.

Today, many of these realities of this early life in New England have been wiped away to make room for patriotism and myth-making. As Philbrick says, history makes an odd jump from Plymouth Rock to Lexington and Concord, with no real attention made to the steps in between. Philbrick's book attempts to fill in some of this forgotten area.


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