Mayflower:  A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick (Penguin, New York, 2006)

 Whatever your preconceptions are of the Mayflower, its passengers, and the Native Americans whose lives were irrevocably altered by its arrival on their shores, Nathaniel Philbrick will change them.  From the much-sanitized stories many of us older folks learned in elementary school, to the "politically correct" versions that sneer at the Pilgrims and idealize the Indians—forget them all.  They're all partly true, but mostly false, and completely over-simplified.  Both the Pilgrims and the Natives were better, and worse; more innocent, and more Machiavellian; wiser, and more foolish; more skillful, and more inept; than our visions of them.  In short, they were all thoroughly human, and Mayflower's greatest strength lies in its ability to make these humans, European and Native American, as real to us as our next-door neighbors.

There were cultural differences, of course; perhaps as much between them and us as between the two 17th-century peoples.  We would find both appallingly bloodthirsty,  but those were the times.  There was no one "Native" population when the Mayflower landed, but political intrigue and warring among the various tribes—as there was in Europe at the time.  Lest we expect more civility on the part of the "civilized" Europeans, the custom of posting the head of a defeated enemy on a spike for all to see was still actively practiced in Europe.

Nonetheless, the original groups involved achieved surprising success at creating a working community out of their diversity.  I used the name, "Pilgrims" to refer to the Mayflower passengers, but of course we all know that's wrong, as the original Pilgrim group (the "Saints") was forced to take on a group of "Strangers" as large as their own.  Thus their intent of transplanting their already tight-knit community to a new land was foiled from the beginning.  The Strangers for the most part did not share their religious convictions, their morals, and certainly not their goals for life in the new world.  That these conflicting populations, along with the various Native American tribes they met, managed to live together reasonably peacefully and to their mutual advantage for about 50 years, was a triumph of both diplomacy, flexibility, and hard work.  One helpful factor was that the English Saints had been living in exile in Holland for many years before embarking on their quest, and thus had some experience in encountering and adapting to another culture.

They weren't as adaptable as the Natives, who quickly saw the advantages of the new flintlock rifles while the Europeans clung stubbornly to their matchlock guns.  Still, they did better than both the merchant adventurers who settled nearby, and the Puritans who settled in Boston and spread rapidly, each of which proved to be a serious destabilizing influence.

Eventually the more-or-less peaceful co-existence fell apart.  Even in the original populations, both Pilgrim and Indian, subsequent generations seemed to have lost their forefathers' vision and strength of character.  The result was King Philips War, a social, economic, and political disaster for the victors and a catastrophe for the losers.

I found the first 3/4 of Mayflower difficult to put down, and thus read it fairly quickly, despite the density of information and the voluminous footnotes.  The remainder, which deals with King Philip's War, also went quickly, but I must admit it was because I did not give it the same attention, as it was all battles and battle strategies.  I've never made it much past the beginning of the Iliad, and didn't care for G. A. Henty's With Lee in Virginia—even though I generally like Henty's books—for the same reason.  It's not, in this case, from squeamishness:  I find it b-o-r-i-n-g, though my strategy game-playing husband and nephews might think differently.

Here's a passage that struck me.  I wonder if some future historian might write something similar about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda?

Adding to the fears and frustrations of the English was the elusiveness of the man who had started the conflict.  By November, Philip had become an almost mythic figure in the imagination of the Puritans, who saw his hand in every burning house and lifeless English body.  In the years to come, traditions sprang up in the river valley of how Philip moved from cave to cave and mountaintop to mountaintop, where he watched with satisfaction as fire and smoke arose from the towns along the blue necklace of the Connecticut.

The truth, however, is less romantic.  Instead of being everywhere, Philip appears to have spent much of the summer and fall holed up near the modern Massachusetts-Vermont state border.  While he and his handful of poorly equipped warriors may have participated in some of the victories that season, Philip was certainly not the mastermind behind a coordinated plan of Native attack.  Indeed, there are no documented instances of his having been present at a single battle in the fall of 1675.  Instead of being heralded as a hero, Philip appears to have been resented by more than a few Indians in the Connecticut River valley.  One well-known warrior in the Hadley region even attempted to kill the Pokanoket sachem, "alleging," an Indian later recounted, "that Philip had begun a war with the English that had brought great trouble upon them."  Although unsuccessful, the assassination attempt indicated that Philip was hardly the dominant and controlling force the English claimed him to be.  Rather than looking to the Pokanoket sachem for direction, the Nipmucks and the river valley Indians, as well as the Abenakis in New Hampshire and Maine, were fighting this war on their own.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Edit
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I'm glad to see this review. I had started this book, but couldn't stick with it. I don't think it was the book, but my mood. You know how you have to be in the right frame of mind for a particular book?

I still have the book, so perhaps this summer, when I have a solid chunk of time to devote to it, I will try again.

I have read one of his other books, "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whale Ship Essex". I was really fascinated by that book. I have another of his sitting on the shelf, "Sea of Glory". I seem to have a bent towards stories of the sea and exploration.

Lest you think he just writes about the sea, he has a book coming out in May about Custer and Sitting Bull.

Posted by dstb on Tuesday, February 02, 2010 at 8:21 pm

I know what you mean! I've had the book since the summer, and only managed to get started (1) because I need to return it, and (2) because of my New Year's resolution to read more books. It is not the kind of book that works well with my previous approach to reading, i.e. in short bursts, snatched moments of time. I found it works best when the reading periods are at least half an hour long, which one doesn't get without making an effort.

Posted by SursumCorda on Tuesday, February 02, 2010 at 8:32 pm

This is a good book and worth reading, but I still think Philbrick's very best book is "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship 'Essex'," the true story that Melville would adapt for Moby Dick. Philbrick lives on Nantucket and had ready access to source material. I understand his next book will be on Little Big Horn and is due out soon. Should be exciting!

Posted by Eric on Saturday, February 06, 2010 at 6:43 am

Two votes (and from people I respect) for In the Heart of the Sea — it's now on my list!

How am I ever going to get through my bookshelf backlog, New Year's resolution or no, if I keep getting new books?

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, February 06, 2010 at 8:31 am
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