Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Reads for Fun: Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Mayflower”

I read this one in the week after we came back from our vacation, which happened to have been in part over certain lands mentioned in this book. Despite the title, the Mayflower isn’t all this book is about, though Philbrick covers the establishment of Plymouth in some detail. Most of the book is actually about a little known conflict called King Philip’s War, which had New World settlers on one side versus a conglomeration of Native American tribes on the other.

King Philip’s War had a devastating impact on New England, by percentages (not raw numbers), killing more of the people involved than were involved in even the Civil War (though I think Philbrick does overplays the significance of this statistic). Ironically, a key deciding factor was the refusal of the Mohawk tribe to join Philip’s coalition; instead of joining up with Philip, they attacked him. As in the last book I looked at (A Terrible Glory), the internal politics of the various Native tribes was an important theme in how history played itself out.

Philbrick’s talent for detail – presenting the persons involved, and the events they were involved in – makes this an excellent read. The one that stands out offhand, for me, is his description of Native reactions to English trade goods: For example, apparently the Natives didn’t like English mustard very much, because they made a “sour face” when they tried it. As a big fan of mustard myself – and having to stick to a low sodium diet as part of my regimen against kidney stones – I found that rather memorable.

It was also rather interesting to read that Squanto – the reputed hero of so many Thanksgiving tales – was apparently something of a manipulator who was attempting to foster his own climb to power among the Natives. For example, when translating for the English, he told the other Natives than the English kept storehouses of pestilence that they were prepared to release if they were not cooperated with. The English themselves had claimed no such thing, but the threat was made all the more real by the fact that New England’s Native population had been decimated by plague just prior to the arrival of the Mayflower.

I mentioned that the war’s events took place in part in areas we had stayed in over our vacation. I wish now I had read this book before we left rather than after we came back: The very motel we stayed in, for example, was apparently very close to the site of a several battles and other significant events. It’s hard to imagine, today, a heavily urbanized area like Providence, Rhode Island being as wild and untamed as Philbrick describes. Actually having been there and seen the places he mentions turns our trip, retrospectively, into an eerie experience.

This one's rightly a bestseller. I didn't pick up anything useful for apologetics in this one, but I certainly enjoyed it.

1 comment:

  1. I'm definitely going to have to check into this book. Several of my ancestors fought in King Philip's War, including Captain Michael Pierce after whom the battle of Pierce's Fight (described around pages 299-303 of that book, if I'm not mistaken) was named.

    Thanks, JPH!