Tuesday, June 06, 2006


In fast-paced and crackling prose, Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower narrates the first 50 years of the Plymouth plantation. Stripping away the mythology of righteous Pilgrims and noble Indians, Philbrick's book focuses on the challenges of interracial exchange and the difficulties of living together in harmony. And yet, in his focus on this larger theme, Philbrick never strays too far away from telling a good story--indeed, it is the story-telling that is the book's great strength.

Opening with the first Mayflower migrants and focusing especially on William Bradford, Philbrick skillfully relates the challenges of the first year at Plymouth Plantation. Indeed, if it were not for the relationship developed with Massasoit and the Pokanokets, the first settlers would have been destroyed, either by the elements, lack of food, or the natives themselves. This interracial cooperation allowed English and Natives to coexist in a relatively peaceful manner until the 1637 Pequot war outside of Boston.

As the first generation of English and Natives pass off the scene, the next generation struggles to find each other. Especially as Plymouth is ruled by Josiah Winslow (founding generation Edward Winslow's son) and as the Ponkankets are led by Alexander and then Philip, old alliances are forsaken, distrust is the rule, and war breaks out. "King Philip's War," as it was called, destroyed the previous interracial balance and, in the two years of 1675-6, changed the power structure of New England.

One of the most noteworthy points that the book raises is how the alliances were never English versus Natives, but were far more complex. Key in this complexity were the "Praying Indians," those Natives who aligned themselves with Christianity as taught by John Eliot and who dwelt in the "Praying towns" set aside for Indian Missions. During King Philip's War, they were important allies for the English and belied their commitment to Christ's commands for peace in their brutal defeat of their Native enemies.

Also important were the various informal agreements made, most importantly between Benjamin Church (an English military leader) and Awashonks (the female sachem of the Sakonnets). By bringing the Sakonnets in on the side of the English and learning the Native ways of fighting, the Plymouth leaders were finally able to break the Pan-Indian alliance seemingly bent for their destruction.

While there was a great deal of scholarship that undergird this breezy telling, one of the great disappointments was Philbrick's clumsy handling of religious themes. Indeed, aside from a few pages at the beginning, one gets little sense of the Pilgrim's religious views. And so, Philbrick's presentation of their theological understanding is fairly wooden--every defeat of the Natives was attributed to the blessing of God; any working together with other Protestants was anathema; and at the end of the day, in Philbrick's telling, the Pilgrims were borderline fanatics, premodern fundamentalists, if you will. One gets the sense that the Pilgrim's religious views were a frustrating impediment to a rousing story; the sooner they could be shunted to the side, the better.

Likewise, while the great moral of the story--the need for interracial cooperation and negotiation, rather than fear and war--seemed particularly appropriate in a post-9/11 world, Philbrick could have done more to bubble that theme to the surface. Perhaps a weakness of the book is that one could have read this book six years ago and not picked up on that theme at all.

Still, for those who know very little about the first 50 years of life in New England, this book is a worthwhile addition to the "popular history" genre, developed so well by Stephen Ambrose. One cannot help but be impressed by the synthetic nature of the book and the fast-paced story. In the end, Mayflower was enjoyable read, even when it failed to ask or answer the big questions about God, providence, and life in this world.

1 comment:

Richard A. Bailey said...

I heard Philbrick on the Bob Edwards Show a few weeks back and, given my research interests, it certainly sounded like an interesting read. I am thinking about checking it out for one of my classes in the fall. The major drawback for adoption at this point is the length. But we'll see.