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.


Reading Darkness to Find the Light

In times of crisis, what should we read? Should we read books that expose the dark side of humanity, or should we seek instead more uplifting books? Readers (and film-goers) today seem to fall into one or the other category. People are either going for Animal Farm1984, or It Can’t Happen Here, or they are indulging in more feel-good novels like Three Things About Elsie, A Man Called Ove, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I fall in the first category.

I must admit that I am by default somewhat of a pessimist. I am not surprised by evil in the world because I believe that humans are tempted by selfishness. That being said, I have spent the past two years actively trying to be more optimistic. Consequently, I am much less cynical than I used to be. I’m certainly much friendlier.

But I am increasingly drawn to dark fiction and histories that explore atrocities. My current project explores responses to the trial of Louis de Berquin, a 16th century Lutheran executed for heresy. I have scoured Inquisition registers and read treatises in defense of the enslavement of indigenous people (such as Sepúlveda’s), in hopes of “understanding” and recognizing today the arguments people have historically given for violence. There’s nothing new about the rhetoric white supremacists use to defend their xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist beliefs.

I guess I feel a responsibility to put my linguistic and historical skills in the service of social reform. It is important to note that there have always been dissenters, like Bartolomé de las Casas or Erasmus, who challenged dominant perspectives on social issues. Still, studying the rhetoric of unpleasant treatises has made me more sensitive to the language politicians throw around in the public square. Perhaps it is because I am more informed that I am less cynical. When all arguments appear equally dazzling, you don’t know what is true and what is false.

Furthermore, literature has taught me to trust my heart as well as my mind. Over and over again, medieval/Renaissance treatises in defense of violence privileged reason over feeling. Sepúlveda appealed to Aristotle in defense of the enslavement of the indigenous people of the “New World”. When we tell others to suppress their feelings, we are asking them to deny a part of their humanity. The deeper I dig into history, the more I realize how essential pity and mercy are to good, ethical decision-making. I am also reminded that reform is possible. Those treatises didn’t have the last word.

Although I do not know what we should be reading in this period of crisis, I do know from personal experience that reading unpleasant works has made me less, not more, cynical. They have inspired me to take action in order to nip hatred in the bud. Consider that the far-right is populated with some of the most cynical people you’ll ever encounter. Their prejudices and conspiracy theories come from a place of fear. And predictably, they have a poor knowledge of history.


Where Are All the Histories?

I think I know why many book bloggers and vloggers don’t review histories: They’re just too darn long.

Like many bloggers, I am participating in Nonfiction November this month. I made a TBR of all the books I planned on reading in November. The major reason why I filmed the TBR was to gush about my favorite histories. I wanted to encourage more readers to try that genre of nonfiction.

It has occurred to me in the past week that many readers are probably put off by the length and density of most histories. Any history worth its chops is at least 500 pages, and who has the time to read 500 pages of dense nonfiction in a few sittings? I love history, but I am usually reading multiple histories at once. It takes me months to finish a single book because I am reading so many other works at the same time.

As a result of my reading habits, I don’t often mark “Read” on Goodreads for nonfiction. Biographies and 800-page studies are just too long to read in even a couple weeks. Goodreads, book blogs, and booktube are perfect for shorter books (fiction or nonfiction) and maybe long, fast-paced thrillers, but readers using those platforms may be deterred from tackling longer nonfiction because they take so long to read.

There is nothing wrong with reading multiple pieces of nonfiction at the same time, but viewers and followers may get the impression that the content creator isn’t serious about reading nonfiction. Goodreads, blogs, and the like reveal a lot about a person’s reading tastes, but these platforms also have their limitations. A reader’s desire to show how many books she has read in a month may deter her from reading a biography or a large history. On the flip side, a reader could read nothing but nonfiction the entire year and fail to reach her reading goal.

I have more than surpassed my Goodreads reading goal of 50 books this year, and I generally am indifferent to the number of books I read in a month. However, I am currently dipping in and out of quite a few massive histories. I want people to know that I enjoy histories, but I don’t finish many in a year.

Lovers of essays and short stories face a similar issue on book reviewing platforms. Essay and short story collections are the most common books readers dip in and out of. Even if a reader has read nine out of the ten essays in a collection, he can’t mark the collection as “Read” until he has read the tenth essay. I enjoy reading short stories, but I often lack the motivation to read a short story collection in a few sittings.

Maybe, we need to rethink the way we discuss certain kinds of fiction and nonfiction. Instead of waiting until we have completed a study of the Middle Ages, for example, we could write blog posts or make videos about the topics that we have already encountered in the book. This could be a great way to introduce followers to a work, because, unlike fiction, nonfiction is hard to spoil. Besides, it is nearly impossible to review an 800-page history in a 500-word blog post.