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Book Review – Mayflower

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The decision that I would read Mayflower, a book that has made its way nearly to the top of the New York Times list of bestsellers, took only as long as was necessary for me to understand that it dealt with the Puritan pilgrims who arrived on the shores of American in 1620. Though the story of the arrival and early struggles of this group of immigrants is now the stuff of legend, I know surprisingly little about these people. Because this story has entered the realm of legend, it is difficult to know where reality ends and mere fantasy begins. Nathaniel Philbrick, who was awarded the National Book Award for his previous title, In the Heart of the Sea, believes that the oft-told tale of the first Thanksgiving, celebrated between the Pilgrims and the Indians, does not do justice to the history of Plymouth Colony. “Instead of an inspiring tableau of tranquil cooperation, the Pilgrims’ first half-century in America was more of a passion play in which vibrant, tragic, self-serving and heroic figures struggled to preserve a precarious peace.” Tragically, that peace was shattered with in the events of the little-known King Philip’s War. Mayflower is a story of courage, community and war. It is a story of the fragile peace that erupted into a brutal war.

There are at least two things I find I need to watch out for when reading history. First, there is the constant danger of historical revisionism, a danger I feel is as prevalent today as at any time in the past. We live in an age when objective truth raises suspicion and, sadly, history has not been immune to the effects of relativism. A second danger is that of twenty-twenty hindsight. With the benefit of all of the facts before us, it can be far too simple for us to determine whether a particular action was right or wrong. But as history unfolds, those caught up in it rarely have access to all the information that would help them to make the best decisions. And so decisions that were made with the best information available and with the best intentions at heart, may appear foolish and immoral when printed in the history books.

Mayflower begins with 102 sick, cold and wet passengers arriving on the shores of the New World. While their long voyage had been both costly and frustrating, it would prove no great trial compared to what awaited them. These men and women arrived at a time when the Native population was being decimated by Old World diseases which ravaged a population that had developed no immunity to such viruses. The two groups quickly forged an awkward friendship held together primarily by the efforts of the Native leader Massasoit and the Pilgrim military leader Miles Standish. This peace lasted for several decades, but as one generation gave way to the next, the peace dissolved into the brutal and bloody conflict now known as King Philip’s War.

The cost of this war was horrifying. Though it lasted only fourteen months, the war was devastating in the loss of human life. During the Second World War, which lasted forty-five months, the United States lost just under one percent of its male population. In comparison, King Philip’s war cost Plymouth Colony fully eight percent of its men. The nearby Indian population fared even worse, losing an estimated sixty to eighty percent of its population to battle, sickness, disease or slavery. The war also destroyed what had been a thriving economy and it would take decades for the New World to recover its wealth, status and infrastructure.

Where the book begins with the Pilgrims arriving in their new land, it ends with a reflection on their losses and the losses of the Indian tribes. Philbrick attempts to make sense of the carnage and with the fact that this war has received little attention until recent years. “In the American popular imagination, the nation’s history began with the Pilgrims and then leapfrogged more than 150 years to Lexington and Concord and the Revolution.” King Philip’s war has become little more than a distasteful footnote in history.

I do not often speak of “history coming to life”, for I feel the phrase is far too commonly used. Yet Philbrick seems to have the gift of doing just that. As I read about the early days of Plymouth I could almost sense the bitter cold and feel the anguish as the Pilgrims mourned the death of another of their people. I understood the bond they felt and wanted them to succeed in building their utopia. History really seemed to come to life.

In telling this story, it seemed to me that Philbrick generally managed to avoid falling into historical revisionism (though ultimately I would have to defer to the expertise of those who have greater knowledge of this period of history) and relying too heavily on hindsight. Still, there were a few occasions when I felt that he was too quick to judge, too quick to assume. In particular, he seemed only too willing to judge the morality of the Pilgrims who fought in this war. When it came to the Native Indians, he seemed less willing to do so. When the white men punish Native insurrection by enslaving parts of the population and shipping them to plantations thousands of miles away, he justifiably declares it an act that is morally repugnant. But he makes no statement about the Natives who ritually torture their victims or who kill men, women and children alike. In fact, the one time he does discuss Indian ritual torture in any detail, he does so in the context of a white man watching these horrible acts as an educational experience. Thus the white man, the spectator, is portrayed as the evil one. While not a constant theme throughout the book, the “noble savage” seems to provide a backdrop for Philbrick’s understanding of victim and victor. The myth of the noble Native is just that, a myth. In this war, as in all others, there is blame enough to share among men of both sides. On both sides of the conflict were heroes and villains. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of King Philip’s War was just how unnecessary it was and how easily it could have been avoided.

Despite its few missteps, I enjoyed reading Mayflower and have no trouble recommending it to others, and especially those who enjoy the writing of other popular historians such as David McCullough or Stephen Ambrose. While the book may seem a little bit intimidating at 460 pages, fully 100 of those are end notes and indexes, leaving it quite a manageable size. It is both an easy and enjoyable read.

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