Review of Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick book coverI first heard about Mayflower when my brother was still in high school. He claimed that it was just about the most boring nonfiction he’d ever read. Not exactly high praise! But I found the first two chapters riveting. Perhaps, it’s my background in academic nonfiction that made me enjoy Philbrick’s style. Academic writing is often dry and opaque. Philbrick’s journalistic style drew me into the lives of the Separatists and their new Indigenous neighbors.

Nevertheless, I didn’t finish Mayflower until now because U.S. History was my least favorite subject in high school. Consequently, I have an embarrassingly poor knowledge of my own country’s history. It’s not my teachers’ fault that I didn’t pay attention in class. I only learned the dates and the President names for the test. I much preferred European history. But with U.S. politics the way it is, it’s about time I learn. Having already enjoyed two other books by Philbrick (Away Off Shore and Into the Heart of the Sea), I figured that Mayflower would be a good place to begin.

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick is the story of the Separatists – religious fundamentalists and dissidents – who voyaged to the New World so that their children might remain English. Although they enjoyed religious tolerance in Holland, the Separatists nevertheless considered themselves English. In the New World, the Separatists could practice their faith on their own terms.

But as the Separatists discovered, the New World wasn’t new for the indigenous people of modern-day Massachusetts (the state is named after the Massachusetts tribe). At first, the Separatists were on friendly terms with the Pokanokets and their sachem Massasoit. The first generation of settlers embraced diplomacy. But subsequent generations did not have the same goals as their parents. They desired the land that belonged to the surrounding Native tribes. Furthermore, Massasoit’s son Philip had his own political ambitions. The Separatists discovered that the tribes had their allies and their enemies. Philip and the Separatists manipulated this landscape to further their own interests.

When six Indian elders were executed for the murder of a friend to the Separatists, the new Pokanoket sachem declared war on the English. Thus began what came to be known as King Philip’s War. I can understand why readers might find the chapters dedicated to this war boring. It’s just one battle scene after another. Yet, Philbrick argues that King Philip’s War was a turning point in English-Indian relations. I don’t know if there is a more engaging way to tell this story. War is monotonous in its ugliness. I also like how Philbrick highlighted the agency of the Native people. Squanto was friendly to the Separatists so that he might steal the sachemship from Massasoit and his family. Alliances are always political.

As a history of the Mayflower settlers and their relationship with the surrounding tribes, Mayflower is a solid popular history. It may not be as entertaining as Into the Heart of the Sea – which is about the shipwreck of the whale ship Essex – but I recommend Mayflower to anyone who, like me, needs to brush up on their early American history.

I will certainly be reading Philbrick’s American Revolution trilogy next. Popular nonfiction may not be as nuanced and up-to-date as academic nonfiction but it will always be more engaging.

Hurston, Zora Neale, Literary Fiction

Review of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

What was it about?

In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford sets out in search of love and freedom. A black girl growing up in a plantation shack on Logan Killick’s farm, Janie spends her childhood in the shadow of her grandmother’s dreams. Her grandmother wants her granddaughter to have the life she never had, so she makes Janie marry Logan even though Janie doesn’t love him. Logan has land. But Janie expects more of life. Over the course of three marriages, Janie learns about herself and her desires. She comes face-to-face with the joys and sorrows of life, developing into one of the most compelling protagonists in all of literature.

What did I think of it?

I admit that it is hard to put into words my reaction to this book. I know that Janie is not a character that I will soon forget. She is a strong Black woman, overcoming hardships foisted on her race through slavery and sustained by the Jim Crow laws of pre-Civil Rights America. Hurston’s prose is lyrical, and all the characters (even the most minor ones) have their own distinct personalities. The story about a man’s mule is at once a humorous episode and a commentary on the systematic oppression of Black people. I look forward to reading more of Hurston’s works. Much has already been written about the value of reading diversely. I know that I have neglected works written by and about people of color for far too long on this blog. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is certainly a great place to begin as it is part of the “Black Canon”.

Favorite Quote

“To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothin’ about. Now they got to look into me loving Tea Cake and see whether it was done right or not! They don’t know if life is a mess of corn-meal dumplings, and if love is a bed-quilt!”

Adventure, Children's/Coming-of-Age, George, Jean Craighead

Review of Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

What was it about?

The story begins with Miyax, an Alaskan Eskimo, who is attempting to join a wolf pack. She is stranded in the wilderness and depends on the wolves to find food. Amaroq is the leader of the pack. He is naturally the most majestic of the wolves and the one with whom Miyax establishes a spiritual connection. She names another wolf Kapu because he reminds her of her father Kapugen, the person who taught Miyax so much about the natural world.

She is running away from an oppressive and frightening past. In a letter addressed to Miyax, her Gussaq (means ‘White’ in Eskimo) pen pal Amy had offered her a place to stay in San Francisco. But she got lost in the Alaskan wilderness, and to survive, Miyax must turn to her Eskimo heritage for guidance.

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George explores the boundaries that divide the tame from the wild, the traditional from the modern, and one culture from another.

What did I think of it?

I love wolves. This should come as no surprise since this is the second book I have read this year about wolves (the first was The Call of the Wild). There are, in fact, quite a lot of similarities between the two works even though the story lines are vastly different. In Julie of the Wolves, Miyax is the protagonist but the story is just as much about her as about the wolves she lives with. In The Call of the Wild, Buck is the protagonist, but once again, the humans are important players in the narrative. The tone as well as some of the themes of the two stories are also quite similar. (Both, for example, speak about “the call” of the wild.) I was surprised by the sometimes blunt realism in Julie of the Wolves. One scene in particular has placed this work on a list of the 100 most frequently challenged books in America. Jean Craighead George offers a pretty convincing tale about a runaway Eskimo girl living with wolves. While the author clearly loves the natural world, the story is (for the most part) grounded in reality. No culture is purely good or purely evil, and the wilderness is not an idyllic paradise. My only criticism is that at times, I found it hard to believe that it was possible for a person to develop such a tight friendship with wild and fully-grown wolves. George clearly had an understanding of the “language” of wolves, but Miyax makes a lot of physical contact with the animals and doesn’t ever get injured. Despite this minor criticism, I am definitely in agreement with the committee that awarded the Newbery Medal to Julie of the Wolves in 1973.

Favorite Quote

“Julie is gone,” she said. “I am Miyax now.” 

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge


Cather, Willa, Literary Fiction

Review of Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

What was it about?

Inspired by the lives of two historical French priests, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather explores the story of the mission lands of the 19th century American Southwest through the experiences of Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his vicar Father Joseph Vaillant. The eponymous bishop is called from his diocese in Sandusky, Ohio to start an apostolate in New Mexico. A sickly but committed priest accompanies him on the long and arduous journey to Santa Fe. The Mexicans and Indians of the region have had a complicated history with foreign missionaries. Some priests intimidated and exploited their parishioners while others brought hope and comfort to the poor and downtrodden. Throughout their ministries, Bishop Latour and Fr. Vaillant receive challenges and blessings from people so different in custom from the French. And yet, missionary work is a two-way experience. The priests, too, learn much from the people they encounter on their journey through life. Sometimes, the priests are the ones on the receiving end.

What did I think of it?

The friendship between Bishop Jean Marie Latour and Fr. Joseph Vaillant must be one of the greatest friendships in all of literature. Vaillant (which means Valiant in French) is a powerhouse of a priest. What he lacks in physical attractiveness he makes up for in zeal. At a moment’s notice, he packs up his few belongings and travels thousands of miles to minister the sacraments to Catholics in desperate need of a caring priest. While he is certainly not without his faults, Fr. Vaillant’s unwavering faith is admirable. He completes Fr. Latour (whose last name means The Tower). Much of my love for this book derived from my personal relationship with a priest who is so much like Fr. Vaillant and who ministers to people of similar demographics.This priest is Brazillian and heads a city parish. However, because he is fluent in Portuguese and Italian, he also ministers to the Brazillian and Italian communities of the city, wherever they are located. It seems as if he runs not one but three parishes. The city has become a mission.  It is rare to encounter dedicated priests in literature (or in popular culture in general), but Cather gives an honest and sympathetic portrayal of missionary life.

I have only ever read two books about the mission lands of the American Southwest (the first was Lilies of the Field by William E. Barrett, which I highly recommend). I have been told that Americans who live in states such as California and New Mexico are taught Death Comes for the Archbishop at school because the foreign missionaries had a huge impact on those regions. Willa Cather does not offer a stereotyped portrayal of Mexicans and Navajo Indians. She clearly understands the struggles they face and their approaches to faith.

Lastly, the novel explores the various challenges facing missionary priests and the various roles they assume in society. Some priests are well-loved but disobedient. They are popular with their parishioners but for all the wrong reasons. Others are disliked because they exploit the people for their own personal gain. And still others, like Fr. Vaillant, are under-appreciated because they come into conflict with the worldly interests of others. The question I considered as I read Death Comes for the Archbishop was “What makes a good priest?” As the characters are depicted in their full humanity, this is a question that the reader is forced to wrestle with throughout the novel. This is certainly a Great American Novel and probably the most meaningful work I have read this year.

Favorite Quote

“Where there is great love there are always miracles,” [Fr. Vaillant] said at length. “One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are, Joseph; I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”


Adventure, London, Jack

Review of The Call of the Wild by Jack London

What was it about?

The Call of the Wild by Jack London is told from the perspective of Buck, a St. Bernard Scotch-Collie. He lives a comfortable existence in the household of Judge Miller; the children play with him, and Judge Miller treats Buck like a king. But the gardener, Manuel, is short on money. To feed his family, Manuel kidnaps and sells Buck to two French Canadians bound for Alaska. Yukon, Alaska is nothing like Santa Clara Valley, California, and François and Perrault are nothing like Judge Miller and his family. Buck’s new masters beat their dogs into submission so that they can be effective sled dogs. The dogs steal and fight for dominance, but only one dog can be the alpha.

During the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, countless men left the comfort of their homes to chase after gold in the harsh wilderness of Alaska. The Call of the Wild does much more than recount the hardships sled dogs faced. It explores the fine line that divides the wild from the tame, the savage from the civilized.

What did I think of it?

The Call of the Wild is not just a story about a dog’s transformation. It is also a study of human nature. London uses human characteristics to describe Buck and animal characteristics to describe the men to argue that humans too have an innate desire for superiority and for a life without societal duties and constraints. For both dogs and men, there is a constant competition to be the best, to be the alpha male. The wild/tame theme is even carried into the author’s choice of setting. Alaska itself is where civilization meets the wilderness. Throughout their journey, characters occasionally stop by villages and trading posts before plunging back into the wild.

Jack London pulls no punches. He vividly paints the way individual dogs are treated by their masters and by the other dogs in the pack. This is naturalistic writing at its finest. The Call of the Wild has easily become one of my favorite books of all time.

Favorite Quotes

[Buck steals food for the first time from another dog]: “This first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence. It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feeling; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and in so far as he observed them he would fail to prosper.”

“Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as [Buck] heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.”