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Thanksgiving Has a Tasty History to Feast On

            The fall holiday season is upon us, with Halloween past and Thanksgiving coming up.  I like Thanksgiving; for a holiday, it’s straightforward and uncomplicated.  Simply put, we take time off from our daily preoccupations to recognize and give thanks for our blessings.  Compared to some other holidays (I’m talking about you, Christmas!), it’s relatively free of the labor-intensive traditions, frenetic activities, and crippling expenditures that can get in the way of enjoyment, not to mention spiritual gratification.  Granted, Thanksgiving can be trying in its own way.  When organizing festive family gatherings, 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 a simple shared meal, quiet reflection and rest, even solitude or a private getaway, and when it all comes together well, Thanksgiving can be personally meaningful and spiritually strengthening.
            The story of the first Thanksgiving does have its own traditional baggage, though, a mythology rooted in history but grown over the centuries to barely resemble the actual events.  It’s a reassuring and cherished story, but, as is nearly always the case with history, the truth turns out to be far more complicated and vastly more interesting than the myth.  This year, as part of your celebration of the season, pick up one of the following books that illuminate the real story of the Mayflower Pilgrims and expand our understanding of our country’s complicated, fascinating history.
            Mayflower:a story of courage, community, and war by Nathaniel Philbrick details the history of the Pilgrims as Separatists in England and as religious refugees in Holland, then follows their voyage on the Mayflower, chronicles the settlement and early years of the Plymouthcolony, and examines relations between European settlers and  Native Americans.  Philbrick adds depth to what we know of familiar historical figures like William Bradford, Chief Massasoit, Squanto, Miles Standish, Priscilla Mullins, John Alden, Edward Winslow, and numerous secondary characters, revealing unexpected and surprising historical details.
            In Makinghaste from Babylon:the Mayflower Pilgrims and their world, another richly-detailed historic overview, author and Englishman Nick Bunker writes about the Mayflower Pilgrimsas Englishmen themselves and places them in the context of the political world in which they lived.  An exhaustively detailed recounting of the first years of settlement, this book, according to Publishers Weekly, “scoops up every relevant character and links all to the basic tale of indomitable courage, religious faith, commercial ambition, international rivalry, and domestic politics.”
            If you only have time for a short read and want a more condensed recounting of the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, Glenn Alan Cheney has hit the high points and given a broad overview in his well-researched and organized history of 1620-1621, Thanksgiving: the Pilgrims’ first year in America.  An easily-read and enjoyable page-turner, it is nevertheless written in evocative, descriptive prose.  As one reviewer said, the book is “full of surprising information, and sympathetic to the humanity of all the participants.” 
            TheMayflower Papers: selected writings of colonial New England edited by Nathanieland Thomas Philbrick is a compilation of 17th century primary source material about the Pilgrims, the Mayflower voyage, and the founding of the Plymouth colony.  It contains Of Plymouth Plantation by Governor William Bradford, the seminal first-person account of the founding of the settlement.  Written in the Elizabethan English of the times, it is not easy reading but is a detailed,emotional recounting of an enterprise that took immense courage, devotion, and fortitude.  In addition, this anthology contains Mourt’s Relation, an account of the colony’s first year in New England which relates the celebration of the first Thanksgiving 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 James Deetz is a social history that is especially strong in its descriptions of the daily 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 about Pilgrim society.
            Two out standing video documentaries of the Mayflower journey, Plymouth settlement, and the first Thanksgiving are: Desperate crossing: the untold story of the Mayflower, an A&E presentation from 2007; and We shall remain: America through native eyes:Disc 1 Massasoit, part of a 2009 PBS series.

by Susan Withee, Adult Services Manager

Posted in: For Adults, Mercury Column

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