Forget the history you were taught in the fifth grade about the Pilgrims. Disavow yourself of notions of English emigrants seeking religious liberty for all. Purge yourself of the anecdotal fraternity among black-suited Puritans and wampum-clad Native Americans.
Nathaniel Philbrick, in Mayflower, provides a well-researched and extensive history of what really happened in New England between 1620, when the Pilgrims "borrowed" the Indians’ winter supplies of corn, and 1676, when the last warriors were executed, pacified or sold as slaves.
His chronology of two cultures adapting to each other is thorough and insightful. While the Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot and other nations had their legends, it’s instructive to see in Mayflower how today’s Americans’ myths derive from the discovery of William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation,” publication of Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and President Lincoln turning Thanksgiving into a gluttonous holiday.
Philbrick’s thesis isn’t to denigrate the English in early America as to chronicle the mistakes that led to hostilities between tribes and settlers. “There are two possible responses to a world suddenly gripped by terror and contention. There is [one] way: get mad and get even. But as the course of King Philip’s War proved, unbridled arrogance and fear only feed the flames of violence.”
Philbrick’s history lesson was as true in 1676 as it is in 2007.
Mayflower, A Story of Courage, Community, and War, Nathaniel Philbrick, illustrated. 461 pp. Viking. $29.95. You can look up the New York Times Book Review from June 6, 2006, at www.nytimes/books.com.
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