About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Friday, November 30, 2012

Review of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Nathaniel Philbrick
2006, 480 pp.

Link to the Amazon review

Nathaniel Philbrick’s MAYFLOWER: A STORY OF COMMUNITY, COURAGE AND WAR is essentially a retelling of the story of the settlement on Plymouth Colony in 1620 and the history of that colony though the end of what became known as “King Phillips War.” That conflict, which stretched throughout New England, came close to snuffing out the presence of English settlement in that part of North America. Despite our knowledge of how it all came out, Philbrook manages to create many moments of drama leaving the reader not wanting to put the book down as he recounts many of the individual narratives that make up the dramatic history of 17th century Plymouth and its surroundings.

The traditional story
 of the Pilgrims' first
 Thanksgiving is surprisingly
 Early on, Philbrick tackles “two conflicting preconceptions.” The first is that the Pilgrims “symbolize all that is good about America”. Its counter is that “evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans.” His research led him to a much richer, more interesting story: “real-life Indians and English of the seventeenth century were too smart, too generous, too greedy, too brave—in short, too human—to behave so predictably.” In short, there are heroes and villains among both the English and the Native Americans they encounter. This may upset some readers who prefer their preconceptions unblemished, but for the rest of us it makes for a much more interesting story and rings truer to our own experience in everyday life that courage, decency and wisdom are not traits endemic to one group or utterly lacking in another.

Generally, the group Philbrick refers to as the “Leideners” or those separatist English who had left England and moved to Holland because they could not, in good conscience, remain in the Church of England (a legal requirement at the time) come off well. They were extreme in their religious beliefs, and would later deny others the freedom to practice their religion that compelled them to sail to America in the first place. Still, they were dedicated to their God, incredibly brave and determined to establish a place for themselves where they could live the way they thought proper. For the most part, their dealings with the Native Americans they encountered were judicious and wise, and the Thanksgiving story we’ve come to know is, surprisingly, mostly correct if incomplete.

The David Patraeus of
his day, Benjamin Church
revolutionized the New
Englanders' way of war
Philbick’s telling leaves a little to be desired when explaining precisely how the Native Americans came to find themselves in the desperate position they were in when Phillip decided to war against the English. In fact, it sounds as though they were desperate to keep purchasing English goods but unwilling to engage in the sorts of work necessary to earn them. Finding that their agricultural way of life no longer sustainable they chose to sell their capital (land), leaving them in an even worse position. Philbrook lays this out but can’t quite bring himself to say that it was the Natives changing in some ways (longing for English goods) but not others (a willingness to adapt to the changing economy) that forced their hand. He also fails to go into any detail as to how the English governed themselves, mentioning their ultimate decisions but skimping on the decision making processes.

Hardly the benign savage
of legend, Squanto was a
shrewd go between who
exploited the Pilgrims and
Natives' ignorance for his
own purposes.

Philbrick's judgment of Englishmen and Natives is balanced and he carefully analyzes the judgments and misjudgments that led to a war no one wanted or expected that proved so catastrophic for the region and all of its peoples. Readers will likely see parallels to the War on Terror in many aspects of how the English initially fought but then came to adapt when their traditional methods proved unsatisfactory. In sum, MAYFLOWER stands as a very good introduction to the story of the English settling of New England and the first period of the New England colonies’ history.

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