The Norrisville Book Discussion Group met on October 23, 2007 and discussed Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick. The following was submitted to me by Alan Zuckerman, moderator of the book group.
Reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s book on the Mayflower is like eating lasagna for Thanksgiving dinner: It tastes good and everybody likes it, but it feels strangely out of place on that particular day. At least that’s what the Norrisville book discussion group thought. The members are not naïve, and they knew from the outset that they would have some of their beliefs about the Pilgrims exploded in their faces. Yet it still felt disorienting to learn that Squanto was a two-faced manipulator out for his own gain, Miles Standish was a war-mongering martinet who needed to be tightly controlled to avoid serious diplomatic mistakes vis-à-vis the Native Americans living in eastern Massachusetts, and the friendly and generous behavior of the area’s natives was at least partly due to the breakdown of the region’s social structure as a result of devastating diseases brought to America’s shores by the very first wave of Europeans (since the natives themselves were not doing too well and were vying with each other for allies to help them gain regional dominance).
Mayflower was a book that everyone liked for what they learned about that historic time and place. It proved highly effective both in telling an exciting adventure story about some very brave and committed people and in demonstrating how rich the larger context of the tale is compared to the oft-repeated mythical story of turkey dinner, blunderbusses, and silver buckles. Especially fascinating were:
the critical importance of disease in determining how interactions between Europeans and Native North Americans would unfold,
the surprisingly long history of contact between these two groups before the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, and
the key role of individual personalities in determining the course of history.
There were some negative notes to go with the mostly positive reception the book received. One group member felt that the author had a bias against the pilgrims as a religious group. Several participants were almost turned back by the book’s slow start (much as the Pilgrims themselves were on the verge of being turned back by their own slow start in attempting to migrate from Europe to the New World). In addition, the book’s somewhat challenging vocabulary prompted one reader to comment that whenever she picked up the book, she grabbed her dictionary at the same time.
Potential readers daunted by the apparent size of this book should take heart in recognizing that at least a quarter of the pages, if not more, consist of the endnotes and index.