Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War - Nathaniel Philbrick

Alright, alright. This book is not something I would usually pick up, but it was recommended to me on Amazon! Plus - I was looking for something to get me in the mood for Thanksgiving! A holiday rooted in a good meal. Is there anything better? I think that Philbrick has a unique voice in this book. "Mayflower" certainly had the potential to be dry, but this was avoided by the author telling a story rather than simply relaying a series of events. Listen to the opening - I love the language. "It is a story that is at once fundamental and obscure, and it begins with a ship on a wide and blustery sea." Great voice! When you hear "Mayflower", you think "first Thanksgiving", right? After reading "Mayflower", you can throw away many of your visions of the first Thanksgiving. Long tables where Squanto sat with the Pilgrims - eating turkey and cranberries, stuffing and potatoes, and of course, corn. It didn't happen. It was more like 100 Pokanokets, and their leader, Massasoit, arriving with deer. The Pilgrims had harvested their barley, so they also had beer. They didn't even have forks! What do you think, Grammy? Let's eat with our fingers this Thanksgiving! The Pilgrim's first Thanksgiving more closely resembled an English harvest festival. The story goes that the first Thanksgiving is why the Pilgrims survived their first winter in the New World. More accurately, the Pilgrims survived by being activate participants in the diplomatic process in their new surroundings. They not only got to know their surrounding lands, but they got to know Massasoit, leader of the nearby Native American tribe, the Pokanokets. They supported and held true a treaty with Massasoit - therefore getting their support. The Pilgrims also happened to arrive in the New World shortly after the local Native Americans lost many lives to the plague. Had they arrived a decade earlier, things may have turned out differently. As it was, I was very surprised by how much the Pilgrims interacted with the Native Americans. I guess I had been under the impression that they established their colony and rarely saw an Indian in the woods. This is not so. Of course, another reason that the Pilgrims survived - they met up with an English speaking Native American. Squanto. It becomes pretty obvious early on that Squanto was not the helpful Native American you read about in third grade. He was opportunistic. He was manipulative. Philbrick does a great job of relating the relationship between the Pilgrims, Massasoit, and Squanto. It struck me how many issues the Pilgrims debated that are still debated today. The biggest example - in my opinion - is this. How much resources should be spent on defense when there are clearly other areas in need? If you watched the '08 election at all - and how could you have not?! - it's pretty clear that this issue is still on the table. Also, speaking of issues that were debated during the election, did you know that the Pilgrims believed that marriage was a secular affair? I did not. Here's something else that struck me. The Pilgrims (and their neighbors, the Puritans) were far more violent than I thought. They persecuted and even hanged Quakers. The killed Native Americans, burning wigwams and killing all who tried to exit the inferno. It made me realize that it's scary what people are capable of doing when they believe that God is on their side. The story culminates with King Philip's war - which nearly wiped out the English and the Natives alike. For me, I was mostly interested by the early days of the colonists. I learned so much about a story I thought I knew so well!

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