Mostly enjoyed this book. Parts were really interesting, parts were a little less interesting, parts read like a US History text book. I actually had to go back and re-read some sections because I realized I had just sort of glazed over them. When I re-read those sections, I actually enjoyed the book more.
The amount of research that had to go into this book is staggering. She starts several years before the Mayflower sails and gives a fairly comprehensive view of the religious environment in England that made the pilgrims want to leave. She then follows them to Holland and then to America, and essentially tells their story until the last survivor dies shortly after the Indian Wars of 1678 (King Philip’s War).
The reason the pilgrims wanted to leave England was because they were being persecuted for their ‘pure’ brand of Protestantism (Puritans) that didn’t fit with the Church of England (which the pilgrims felt was still too Catholicized). They fled England for the Netherlands where they lived and practiced their religion freely – and became prodigious printers who sent their religious material back into England. That all ended, however, when Holland needed England as an ally to take on the French. One of King James’ (king of England – NOT LeBron James) conditions for the alliance was that the Dutch had to prohibit the Puritans from sending religious material into England. To accomplish this, the Dutch essentially outlawed the pilgrims from practicing their religion at all. Thus, they headed to the New World (it’s ironic that the man whose name is on arguably the most popular English translation of the Bible of all time was also responsible for persecuting those who most closely held to its teachings).
Everything about the Pilgrims’ lives from that point on was hard (actually their existence in Holland was difficult too – but it ratcheted up in misery once they headed to America). They actually boarded a ship called the Speedwell to sail to England and pick up some people who still lived there. They left at what they thought was the perfect time – mid-summer. This would get them to America in the early fall, which would miss the hottest weather but still give them time to prepare for winter. Once they reached England, however, they had to wait for one of their leaders who was in hiding because of the persecution. They ended up waiting for almost three weeks, which pushed back their departure date to later than they wanted. Then, once they started sailing – with two ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower – the Speedwell started leaking and they were forced to turn back (after traveling roughly 300 miles). After deciding the Speedwell couldn’t make it, they loaded as many people and belongings as they could on the Mayflower and made the journey (which was miserable and included the ship’s mast almost breaking because of storms – they had to reinforce it using a tool they had on ship to construct their homes in America). Of course, by this time they left so late that they reached America in the middle of November (1620), just as the cold weather (which they weren’t used to in England and Holland) was setting in.
Their first winter has been well-chronicled. Almost half the people died – they spent almost as much time burying people as they did trying to build shelter and find food. Once they survived the first winter – with the help of the local Indians (one of whom – Squanto – actually spoke English) – they ended up building a community that could survive.
The people who came were an interesting mix. Some brought their kids (and some of the names were awesome – one family had children named Fear, Patience, Love, and Wrestling, and another had a child named Resolved – there is no doubt that if I had to do it all over again, I’d name one of my two sons Resolved), some left their kids in Europe with the hope they’d send for them later, some were older, and some were younger. Everyone, however, faced incredible hardship. For some families, they lost all their kids. For others, children lost both parents. And for some, the hoped-for reunion with members left behind never happened.
One of the interesting aspects of the story was how their relationship with the Indians evolved. The pilgrims started out on very friendly terms and really depended on the Indians to survive. They didn’t view them as savages and actually respected their culture (while recognizing their pagan beliefs). This changed over the years, however, and eventually resulted in all out war in the 1670s. King Philip’s War (named after the anglicized name of the Indian chief who started it) resulted in entire English communities being wiped out and the Indian population of Massachusetts effectively being eliminated.
Something else that was an overriding theme was religion. Not surprisingly, the pilgrims were VERY aware of God’s providence in their lives. What was surprising was their somewhat elementary understanding of that providence. If things didn’t go well, they assumed they’d made God angry and He was punishing them (many saw the Indian wars as God using the Indians to punish them for becoming worldly). From one standpoint it was a pretty pagan view of God – please Him and be blessed, anger Him and be punished. It’s interesting that people who were willing to sacrifice so much for their faith apparently had a somewhat unbiblical view of the God they sacrificed so much for.
There is SO much more to this book than what I relate here. As I said, it’s enormously well-researched and very comprehensive. As to whether or not I’d recommend it? I guess I would – tepidly. If you like early American history – have at it. But understand that it’s not exactly a page-turner, and some parts drag a bit. There is, however, tons of information, and the author (who’s British) writes without an agenda – something that’s not all that common in history writing today.
One final interesting tidbit. One of the men who was part of the Plymouth colony (he didn’t come over on the Mayflower but came over roughly ten years later) was John Eliot. John was very concerned about evangelizing the Indians and actually translated the Bible into the Algonquin language – he was known as the “missionary to the Indians.” He also established a Latin School for boys in Roxbury, MA in 1645. Here’s what’s interesting – the school still exists. Roxbury Latin School has been around since 1645. It’s still a boys’ school and has around 300 students in grades 7-10 (student/teacher ratio is 7:1 – average class-size is 13) and an endowment of $127 million. Tuition is $31,850 (I’m guessing this is more than what John charged – even adjusting for inflation and the exchange rate from beaver pelts to dollars). Pretty amazing, eh? That’s quite a legacy.