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Would make a valuable addition to any school library
on November 19, 2008
Nathaniel Philbrick has adapted and abridged his New York Times bestselling historical narrative MAYFLOWER: A Story of Courage, Community, and War for a younger audience. THE MAYFLOWER AND THE PILGRIMS' NEW WORLD includes numerous sketches, maps and photographs of artifacts, detailed timelines and insets of historical biographies, all of which add to its accessibility.
The book begins with an English colony of Separatists living quietly in Leiden, Holland, longing for the quiet and familiar English village life now lost to them, and determined to establish a small, inwardly focused colony in the New World where they would be free to worship as they chose. Some of the most vivid prose deals with the Pilgrims' preparations for their journey. The writing deftly captures both their fear of the perilous journey they felt compelled to undertake, and the stoicism and courage of this small and humble congregation in the face of their low odds of success.
Philbrick makes it easy to visualize the triumphs and frustrations of the daily lives of the Pilgrims, from the terrible death toll on the high seas to the difficult first landing in Cape Cod and their subsequent move to the more hospitable Plymouth Bay. An eerie emptiness greeted them on the Massachusetts coast --- a plague had recently decimated the locals. In this dangerous and new land, they encountered the Pokanoket Indians and their charismatic sachem Massasoit, whose initial offer of help and protection saved them from certain death.
The friendship, cooperation and mutual dependence that grew between the Indians and the Pilgrims lasted 50 years. However, as the Pilgrims' reach into New England grew and the Indians began to recognize the threat they represented, and both groups grew less dependent on each other, it became increasingly difficult to maintain peace. Massasoit's son Philip brashly launched a complicated war (now known as King Philip's War) that claimed the lives of eight percent of the men of Plymouth Colony. Terrible as these deaths were to the colonists, the Indians were to suffer even graver losses, with 60-80% of the Native American population of southern New England lost during those and subsequent years through death, disease, being sold into slavery, or by fleeing the region.
Philbrick effectively dispatches the various mythologies and romances surrounding those times, instead giving us complex, fallible and believable figures in Massasoit, William Bradford, Squanto and company. The famed First Thanksgiving meal (probably held in late September or early October of 1621), for example, did not involve Pilgrims and Indians sitting in a tidy group at a long table and praying together as popular Victorian art would have it. Instead, "most of the celebrants stood, squatted, or sat on the ground as they gathered around outdoor fires, where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits and where pottages --- stews into which varieties of meats and vegetables were thrown --- cooked invitingly." There were no pumpkin pies or cranberry sauce. The Pilgrims ate with their hands and with knives, since forks did not make their appearance at Plymouth Colony until near the end of the 17th century. The first Thanksgiving meal was not a spiritual ceremony but more in the nature of a secular harvest festival; the Pilgrims themselves did not use the term "Thanksgiving."
It is utterly fascinating to read a clear-eyed and well-researched account of such significant times in America's history. The descriptions, although not excessively graphic, make it clear that neither the colonists nor the Indians were above butchering women and children, and such gruesome acts as displaying the heads of captured enemies on pikes. Philbrick manages to desanitize an important piece of American history while in no way diminishing the more thrilling aspects of the story or denigrating these beloved historical figures. This book would make a valuable addition to any school library.
--- Reviewed by Usha Reynolds