The fallholiday season is upon us, with Halloween past and Thanksgiving coming up. I like Thanksgiving; for a holiday, it’sstraightforward and uncomplicated. Simplyput, we take time off from our daily preoccupations to recognize and givethanks for our blessings. Compared tosome other holidays (I’m talking about you, Christmas!), it’s relatively freeof the labor-intensive traditions, frenetic activities, and crippling expendituresthat can get in the way of enjoyment, not to mention spiritual gratification. Granted, Thanksgiving can be trying in itsown way. When organizing festive familygatherings, there’s always a risk of logistical chaos and inter-personal drama,and, what with prodigious food preparation and consumption followed by hours ofdigestive recovery and kitchen clean-up, it can all overwhelm and exhaust. But the day can also be celebrated with asimple shared meal, quiet reflection and rest, even solitude or a privategetaway, and when it all comes together well, Thanksgiving can be personallymeaningful and spiritually strengthening.
The storyof the first Thanksgiving does have its own traditional baggage, though, a mythologyrooted in history but grown over the centuries to barely resemble the actualevents. It’s a reassuring and cherishedstory, but, as is nearly always the case with history, the truth turns out tobe far more complicated and vastly more interesting than the myth. This year, as part of your celebration of theseason, pick up one of the following books that illuminate the real story ofthe Mayflower Pilgrims and expand our understanding of our country’scomplicated, fascinating history.
Mayflower:a story of courage, community, and war
by Nathaniel Philbrick details thehistory of the Pilgrims as Separatists in Englandand as religious refugees in Holland, thenfollows their voyage on the Mayflower, chronicles the settlement and earlyyears of the Plymouthcolony, and examines relations between European settlers and Native Americans. Philbrick adds depth to what we know offamiliar historical figures like William Bradford, Chief Massasoit, Squanto, MilesStandish, Priscilla Mullins, John Alden, Edward Winslow, and numerous secondarycharacters, revealing unexpected and surprising historical details.
In Makinghaste from Babylon:the Mayflower Pilgrims and their world
, another richly-detailed historicoverview, author and Englishman Nick Bunker writes about the Mayflower Pilgrimsas Englishmen themselves and places them in the context of the political worldin which they lived. An exhaustivelydetailed recounting of the first years of settlement, this book, according toPublishers Weekly, “scoops up every relevantcharacter and links all to the basic tale of indomitable courage, religiousfaith, commercial ambition, international rivalry, and domestic politics.”
If you onlyhave time for a short read and want a more condensed recounting of the story ofthe Mayflower Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, Glenn Alan Cheney has hitthe high points and given a broad overview in his well-researched and organizedhistory of 1620-1621, Thanksgiving: the Pilgrims’ first year in America.
An easily-read and enjoyable page-turner, it isnevertheless written in evocative, descriptive prose. As one reviewer said, the book is “full of surprising information, and sympathetic to thehumanity of all the participants.”
TheMayflower Papers: selected writings of colonial New England
edited by Nathanieland Thomas Philbrick is a compilation of 17th
century primary sourcematerial about the Pilgrims, the Mayflower voyage, and the founding of the Plymouth colony. It contains Of Plymouth Plantation
byGovernor William Bradford, the seminal first-person account of the founding ofthe settlement. Written in theElizabethan English of the times, it is not easy reading but is a detailed,emotional recounting of an enterprise that took immense courage, devotion, andfortitude. In addition, this anthologycontains Mourt’s Relation
, an account of the colony’s first year in New England which relates the celebration of the firstThanksgiving in autumn 1621, and Good News from New England,
a continuation of the history, both byEdward Winslow.
The Timesof Their Lives: life, love, and death in Plymouth Colony
by leading Plymouth archaeologist JamesDeetz is a social history that is especially strong in its descriptions of thedaily lives and society of the colony. Drawing on the archaeological evidence, it touches on crime, food, sex,legalities, and material culture, and upends many of our misconceptions aboutPilgrim society.