Book Reviews: Colonial Non-Fiction Favorites

NonFic

I usually try to keep the History Nerd glee under wraps, but I’ve been listening to this podcast on the way to work titled “Revolutions.” Of course I skipped right to my favorite one, the American Revolution.  I’ve been nerding out on Brian about it ever since, because I think the guy gets everything right but sometimes forgets to mention small nuances that matter much.  Like with the Townshend Act… colonists weren’t just pissed because Britain was taxing them.  They were pissed because Britain was taxing them on goods it was illegal to make themselves.

You see?  You get me going…

I’ll admit that I haven’t read as much about the revolution as I probably should.  I’ve never read 1776, for instance.  But I do voraciously read all sorts of stuff from the colonial period. In another world, in another place, I would really have loved to be a career Colonial Historian.  I’ve even delved into some of the primary source stuff.  It’s totally different than you would imagine it to be from all the myths you were fed as children.  Even a college American History course doesn’t always get at the meat of it all.  I recommend a lot of fiction on this blog, but below I’m listing four non-fiction books that changed the way I thought about Colonial America.  Because once I’m on a history kick, I want to STAY on a history kick.   (I’m just gonna pretend you’re also into this stuff…)


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

This is a great overview of the pilgrim experience that is easier to read than most non-fiction books and just fascinating.  I say overview, but that might be deceiving.  It delves deeper than generalities by giving you a sense of who these people were, mistakes and all.  It also takes you farther than most pilgrim histories, right into the pivotal conflict of King Phillips War.  Philbrick explores the attitudes of the pilgrims, but also of their children and the children of Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief whose help was probably the only reason the early colony survived.

I’ve seen a bunch of different histories that attempt to do this same thing, but I don’t think that any of them have quite the complexity of this one, while still maintaining clarity.  If you’re new to pilgrim history, Mayflower is the definitive volume.

A few things surprised me in this book.  First was the way Massasoit used the pilgrim alliance to secure power for himself in the region.  We think of the Wampanoags as being these benevolent people who could not watch the pilgrims starve, (Samoset and Squanto teaching them to hunt eel and plant corn, anyone?  “Welcome Englishmen?”).  The reality was much more complicated, and to a lot of extents more equal.  The Wampanoags were giving something, yes.  But they were getting something as well.  They went from small and bullied tribe to the most powerful tribe in the region over this alliance.

The other thing I found surprising was how nuts the pilgrims were.  Again, we think of these grandfatherly men going into God’s wilderness to create the City on A Hill.  And they did go to America with the hopes that they could have religious freedom from the Church of England.  The thing you don’t realize is that they were just as fanatical about it as the people they left behind – no room for anything other than Puritanism in Plymouth colony.  They also often overreacted in bloody, bloody ways when relations with the locals weren’t going as they preferred.

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, by Laura Thatcher Ulrich

Ulrich unearthed the diary of Martha Ballard in a local library, and created this great book exploring what her life was like as a rural Midwife in colonial Maine.  Ulrich’s New England is a bit more built-up than Philbrick’s.  It’s has information about medicine at the time, colonial understandings of communicable disease, and the colonial legal system (Martha’s husband wasn’t the best sort of guy).  It can be a bit of a slog, since Martha’s English is far from the modern standard and chapters start with snippets from her diary.  But it’s worth it to get through, and if you need to you can skip the diary excerpts.  Ulrich does a great job of quoting from them and expounding on why they’re important later in the chapters.

What surprised me most about this book was the deep connection of neighbors to each other.  I think of colonial Maine as being this bleak and unpopulated place, but there was a lot of help and a lot of camaraderie among the people who were there.  It was not the uninhabited wilderness I pictured.  What I found especially interesting was the birthing practices.  I guess having children while sitting was the norm back then – usually on a neighbor’s lap if the midwife didn’t own a birthing chair.  That kind of closeness is something I couldn’t even fathom experiencing today.  What also got me was the massive amount of work running a colonial farm could be.  Martha is only able to run around and midwife because she has older children to do most of the housework for her, and that housework is INVOLVED.

Mayflower Bastard: A Stranger Among the Pilgrims, by David LIndsay

Lindsay looks into the life of his ancestor, Mayflower passenger Richard Moore, and finds a strange story.  Most pilgrim stories focus on the Puritan passengers, but there were non-puritans who made the trip too.  Moore is one of these.  Not only is it interesting to see the story from that perspective, but Moore’s father tore him from his life with his adulterer mother, sending him the only place she could never reach him (spoiler: it’s the New World).  It’s not only a crazy-awesome soap opera story, it’s an interesting look into the England they all left behind to make the journey.  Not only that, but Moore became a well-known ship captain in the area, leaving room for a wealth of merchanting information.

The most impressive thing for me in this is the England Moore leaves behind.  It’s after the Renaissance, you would think the world must be progressive somehow, but in many ways it all feels like the middle ages rehashed.  There are definite nods to landed gentry being the most important, and to them living a life so separate from the farm communities around them.  It makes you see the contrast between American and England so much more clearly – and how in many ways American was really brutal even if it was freeing.

I have seen fisherman perspectives, and trapper perspectives, but Moore also lived in parts of the country that weren’t as affected by native attacks, and he was a merchant with a large cargo ship who also traveled to the West Indies.  That was a new perspective for me as well.  Interesting all around.

The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England,  by Carol F. Karlsen

This book focuses on how witch trials were more about wealth and forcing women to conform to societal norms than they were about actual Puritan hysteria.  There’s a wealth of information about relationships and marriage practices in the books.  In order to get Karlesn’s argument, you do have to understand the social hierarchy of women in Colonial America, and she devotes a bunch of time to this.  Women’s studies and colonials?  My favorite thing ever!  Karlsen makes a compelling argument, too, showing that it was usually women with wealth and power who weren’t quite conforming the way everyone liked that were accused of witchcraft.

This book occupies that sort of middle period where things were built up in the colonies and fairly urban in places, but it was still a frontier with a lot of freedom from laws and dependency on neighbors and community.  It’s an interesting time that isn’t covered as often, part of the same time that the Moore book covers.  That’s in its favor, too.  What I think struck me most is how relations between people haven’t changed much.  The rules that govern those relationships certainly have, but the feelings behind them, and the way they play out within the economic structure of society, are still the same.

All links are Amazon Affiliate links.  Happy Reading!!

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