Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Book Review: Mayflower

Having very much enjoyed Nathaniel Philbrick's earlier works, I awaited quite impatiently the release of his newest book, Mayflower. I secured a copy of it recently and shunted it to the top of my "to-be-read" pile (don't even ask how big that pile is ...), and have just finished reading it. It's a very readable, decent account of the first sixty years of Massachusetts history, encompassing not only the settlements of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, but also the horrific conflict that erupted in 1675 between the English colonists and their Indian neighbors (which has come to be known as King Philip's War).

Mayflower does a good job describing the Pilgrims' transatlantic journey and the harrowing first years of their settlement at Plymouth; every time I read a new description of that period, I grow more and more mystified at how the group survived at all. As Philbrick makes clear, that survival depended in no small part on the reaching of an understanding with the local natives, most notably the Pokanoket sachem Massasoit.

The second half of the book concerns the rapid expansion of English settlements during the decades following the arrival of the Mayflower, and the tensions that began to develop between the second generation of settlers and their native neighbors. Those tensions erupted into a cataclysmic war in the mid-1670s, resulting in massive losses of life and property on both sides, but which was particularly disastrous to the Indian tribes in the long run. It would have been quite easy for Philbrick to have lost his narrative in the complex warren of dates, names, and places, but he manages to hold his story-line together very neatly.

There are some problems with the sources Philbrick uses for his two focal characters (Plymouth governor William Bradford and later military leader Benjamin Church), as Jill Lepore points out in her excellent New Yorker review of Mayflower. Lepore, whose book The Name of War is an excellent account of King Philip's War, knows her stuff, and her criticisms of Philbrick are valid. It is unfortunate that Philbrick chose to rely so much on Church's 1716 book (published and probably written largely by his son) to reach his conclusions - this decision mars what would otherwise be an even better book.

Philbrick eschews footnotes, a practice which I normally find frustrating and annoying. He compensates (at least in part) by providing rich bibliographic essays for each chapter, which are important additions to the narrative and should not be missed. While certain elements of Philbrick's conclusion are overdrawn and may in fact be inappropriate, his overall account of New England's settlement and the war that nearly destroyed it are certainly worth reading.


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