three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
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A Story of Courage, Community, and War

A-Mayflower"In the American popular imagination," Philbrick writes, "the nation’s history began with the Pilgrims and then leapfrogged more than 150 years to Lexington and Concord and the Revolution." But, as Philbrick shows, our nation’s origins and attitudes were forged in between. The Pilgrims, who suffered a perilous journey on the Mayflower, arrived with pious ideals that barely survived the obstacles posed by a barren, disease-ridden land, Indian tensions, a rapacious land grab, and military endeavors. An uneasy alliance with Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, largely saved them. But after 50 years of shaky peace, King Philip’s war decimated thousands of colonists and Indians alike—and paved the way for further European colonization.
Viking. 480 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 0670037605

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Philbrick] has written a judicious, fascinating work of revisionist history. … Even if you already know that Thanksgiving was not enshrined as a national holiday until nearly 250 years after (by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, as ‘a restorative myth of national origins’), that fact in itself is reason to be riveted by Mr. Philbrick’s retelling." Janet Maslin

Newsweek 4 of 5 Stars
"Mayflower substitutes solid research for the pious cartoons we used to get in grade-school classes and Thanksgiving pageants. … No one who reads Philbrick will ever feel comfortable calling Plymouth Rock ‘a symbol of the imperishable ideals upon which the new nation had been founded.’" David Gates

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[Philbrick] appears to bring no bias to his work except a desire to get as close to the truth as primary and secondary sources allow, in refreshing contrast to the many academic historians who—consciously or not—have permitted political and cultural bias to color their interpretations of the past. … He knows, though, that the story of the Pilgrims can’t be reduced to doughty Englishmen and women in modest homespun and smiling Indians proffering peace pipes." Jonathan Yardley

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 3.5 of 5 Stars
"His portrait of the two-month Atlantic crossing of the Mayflower, ‘her bottom a shaggy pelt of seaweed and barnacles, her leaky decks spewing salt water onto her passengers’ devoted heads,’ captures the reader’s imagination from the first pages. … The story moves inland in the subsequent decades of the 17th century, and the book remains quite readable but is marginally less interesting." Harper Barnes

Economist 3 of 5 Stars
"Readers expecting another gripping shipboard drama, along the lines of Mr. Philbrick’s bestselling In the Heart of the Sea (about an ill-fated whaling ship), will be disappointed. … The deterioration of English-Indian relations in New England forms the core of Mr. Philbrick’s tale. This is a huge topic, and it takes him ever further from his original Mayflower subjects."

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"Philbrick fills in some of the blanks with this vigorous, though thinly researched and less than completely evenhanded, history of New England’s first colonists. … King Philip’s War—named for the Wampanoag chief who began it—was twice as deadly as the Civil War, and Philbrick’s detailed account makes harrowing reading." Jennifer Reese

Critical Summary

Mayflower rethinks the events and players that gave rise to a national mythology about Pilgrims living harmoniously with their Indian neighbors. Instead, Philbrick tells a story of ethnic cleansing, bloody wars, environmental ruin, and the deterioration of English-Indian relations. While he introduces familiar elements, Philbrick also recasts well-known characters like Miles Standish ("Captain Shrimp"), William Bradford, and Benjamin Church. Most critics agree that he provides a well-researched, unbiased revisionist history (though we should note that for years many people have been reading about the environmental devastation of New England, the bloody Indian-English wars, and the less-than-pious Pilgrims). If not as gripping as the National Book Award–winning In the Heart of the Sea (2000), particularly the second half, Mayflower nonetheless provides a harrowing account of survival and, despite its grim themes, a celebration of courage.

Supplemental Reading

Changes in the Land Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England | William Cronon (1983): In this ethno-environmental history, Cronon explores how as control of the New England landscape shifted from the Indians to the European colonists, ideas of property and economy irreversibly altered the land.