Thanksgiving, that all-American holiday, is fast approaching and to help you get in the mood and brush up on some early American history, we’ve compiled a list of six books about those earliest European settlers of North America, and perennial Thanksgiving favorites, the Pilgrims. With some history, memoir, and fiction, there’s a little something here for everyone, but hopefully all of these titles will spark some Thanksgiving inspiration so that we can celebrate the survival of the Puritans in the New World by going all out in a huge holiday celebration, of which the Puritans themselves, finding large celebrations sinful, would heartily disapprove.
Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Bethia Mayfield is a young girl growing up in the Puritan settlement of Great Harbor. Curious and intelligent, she wants terribly to gain more schooling than is open to women at the time. In her desperate desire for some kind of independence she often slips away from her tasks to wander the wild beaches of Martha’s Vineyard and watch people from the native Wampanoag tribe. At the age of twelve she forges an unlikely friendship with Caleb, the son of the local tribe’s chieftain. Remaining friends in secret, they teach each other about their respective worlds and beliefs, but their friendship is tested when Bethia’s minister father makes it his mission to convert Caleb, earning the wrath of the tribe’s shaman. Her father does not give up easily however and begins to educate Caleb, who is eventually accepted into Harvard and goes to study there. From her new position as an indentured housekeeper in Cambridge, Bethia watches Caleb as he tries to straddle both worlds and cultures.
When a green comet blazed across the sky in 1618, it struck fear in the hearts of people all over the world and added to an atmosphere of political and social unrest in the United Kingdom. When the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower and set off for the New World two years later, that air of tension remained and it was to escape this charged situation and the economic depression in their homeland that they conceived of their voyage across the Atlantic. In Making Haste from Babylon, Bunker delves into the background of this first Puritan expedition and follows the passengers of the Mayflower across the sea and through the first ten years of their new lives in America. He charts the progress of the Pilgrims from religious persecution in England to their establishment of a permanent threshold in America, driven by their entrepreneurial, revolutionary, and idealistic spirits.
In an era where women could not vote, hold public office, or even teach outside the home, Anne Hutchinson became a public figure who wielded considerable political power. A wife and mother in the Puritan community who bore sixteen children, Anne dared to suggest that no intermediary was needed to communicate with God, and her theological and political teachings combined with her charisma drew in many supporters. Her ideas were well outside the acceptable mold for the Puritan leaders of her community however and she was tried for behaving in a manner unseemly for her gender. The outcome of this trial was both her banishment from Massachusetts, which she left to found Rhode Island and the beginning of Harvard College, which the Puritans of Massachusetts created in order to systematically educate youth into their teachings. American Jezebel takes an in-depth look at the life of Anne Hutchinson and the effect that she had on her surrounding culture.
The Pilgrim by Hugh Nissenson
Charles Wentworth decides to leave his home in England for a new start in the New World in 1622 after his fiancee dies and he is lost and heartbroken without her. He is constantly at war within himself, tormented by sinful desires and unable to feel sure of God’s love for him. His Puritan ideals demand a complete faith in God that he can no longer feel and he also cannot bring himself turn away from his worldly wants. Through the fictional story of Charles’ journey to the New World, Nissenson explores the life and faith of the passionate and idealistic people who came to America in search of freedom and redemption.
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Mayflower tells the in-depth story of the first sixty years of the settlement of the New World by the Pilgrims from the Mayflower. Philbrick uses first-person accounts as well as historical records to recreate the lives and events of the first European settlers of America covering the episodes leading up to and the journey on the Mayflower, the strategies for survival from the first hard years, as well as King Phillip’s War and its aftermath. Mayflower has a good balance of anecdotes and first-person accounts and individual narratives all used to bring alive the events that comprised the beginning of a nation.
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
Sarah Vowell brings her trademark wit and humor to the subject of the Puritans and their influence on current day America. She simultaneously delves into the historical facts of life for the Pilgrims coming to America in the 17th century and looks at the way that their values and beliefs have influenced American culture over time. Using historical and biographical information of historical figures as well as personal anecdotes and social commentary, Vowell creates an interesting portrait both of the first European settlers of the United States and their links to the current culture of America.