Michael's Reviews > Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick
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I was enthralled with this popular history of the first 60 years of Plymouth Colony starting with the Mayflower landing in 1620. With a focus on the actions and decisions of a limited set of key individuals, Philbrick’s account brings to life the initial desperate events of the colony (half of the initial 102 died the first year) and the early years of dependence on the support of the Pokenoket tribe. I was enlightened to learn how decimation of Indian villages by disease and the competitive balance between tribes contributed to the ability of the Pilgrims to gain a foothold. In many ways, the sachem (chief) Massasoit was calling the shots in using the alliance with the Pilgrims to enhance his position with respect to rival tribes, and in turn Squanto’s support of the colony as mediator/translator was motivated by his own Machiavellian schemes. Due to past cases of treacherous attacks and kidnapping for slavery on the part of English and French visitors, other tribes to the north and south would not tolerate colonists. Thus, the Indians were not just passive dupes to exploitation and domination by European invades.

Though the Pilgrims goal of religious freedom was not very tolerant of other belief systems (as the Quakers learned and individuals executed for bestiality and other personal crimes), they were not empire builders and there was quite a lot of respect for the Indians at first. Philbrick does well to dwell on the factors that contributed to the surprisingly peaceful subsequent period of colonial growth and expansion for nearly 50 years and then to spend half the book on the causes and details of its breach in King Philip’s war of 1675, which decimated the Europeans and nearly extinguished several of the tribes in southern New England. Philbrick’s coverage of compassionate voices for peace and arrogant stupidity on both sides begs the question of whether the war was inevitable. He points out how a sense of a Greek tragedy pervades the progression from a local conflict to an expanded war between several tribes and colonies throughout New England.

As evident in two other books of his I enjoyed (his survival saga of the whaling ship Essex and his history of the Battle of the Little Bighorn), Philbrick is a master of balancing the use of primary sources and interpretive reflection in a compelling narrative that rivals that of skilled fiction writers. Philbrick clearly did a lot of research to write this book, but I have no way of telling how much of his synthesis is innovative vs. derivative. What I can say is that the book provided me a good foundation to negotiate the myths and divergent interpretations of European colonialism in the New World and to understand patterns that played out disastrously throughout the westward expansion over the subsequent 200 years.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Doug Bradshaw Michael, great review. I need to read some of these instead of some of the fluff I enjoy reading. I've hardly read any serious history and when I have, I've really enjoyed it. I'm going to put this one on my Kindle right now. Thanks

Doug Bradshaw Done.

Michael Doug wrote: "Done."
Glad you were moved to ebook action. As with food, a 10% dose of history vegetables gives you freedom for carbohydrates and desserts of mysteries, thrillers, and sci fi. I avoided nonfiction for a long time, but the right person like Philbrick or McCulloch or Goodwin can make history come alive like a novel.

message 4: by Doug (last edited Aug 11, 2012 04:32PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Doug Bradshaw Yes, I read the John Adams book by him and got a ton out of it. Loved it, actually. Enjoyed your vegetable/carb metaphor. Perfect.

message 5: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue Nice review Michael. I like your food group metaphor too. I have begun reading more internationally and more biographies. Now to more history.

Michael Sue wrote: "I like your food group metaphor too. I have begun reading more internationally and more biographies. Now to more history."
So with food metaphor, Philbrick is American as apple pie, and you have my restaurant review. Now if your exotic appetite for the cuisine on your wish list pans out, I will know where to make my next reservation. All intriguing: Cults of Catholic Europe, Parting the Water, In an Antique Land, City of Ravens, D-Day Spies. "There is no frigate like a book." :-)

message 7: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue :)

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