I can’t say I know much about midwifery, female escorts, or homeopathic practitioners, but author Chris Bohjalian’s novels–Midwives, The Guest Room, and The Law of Similars, for instance–let me step into shoes I’ve never worn. Last month I read his Hour of the Witch, a story centered on life in one of the first settlements in the New World.
The main character, Mary Deerfield, is a young woman living in Boston at the turn of the 17th century. Her husband is abusive. And when he finally causes her severe injury, she makes the courageous decision to file for divorce. As might be expected in a novel about an independent minded Pilgrim woman, Mary is accused of witchcraft. There’s the matter of the three-tine forks she uses, said to be the devil’s pitchfork–in reality, her father, an importer, has gifted her these new-fangled utensils from England. There’s the fact that she is ‘barren’ and doctors with herbs. And as anyone who remembers their history lessons about Salem, once the seed of doubt has been planted, anything out-of-the-ordinary in her life makes her suspect. But I was disappointed that the plot and characters bordered on boilerplate. I’d heard this story before. Tell me something I don’t know.
I did appreciate the quick refresher on Pilgrim life because I recently traveled to Plymouth, Massachusetts to tour All Things Pilgrim. And as luck would have it, Bohjalian included a bibliography that led me to a phenomenal book about the first settlers titled The Times of Their Lives. Even more serendipitous was the fact that the book’s author, James Deetz, an archaeology professor, was one of the first directors of the Plimoth Plantation Museum (now Plimoth Patuxet), one of the sites I visited.
And Deetz (unlike Bohjalian) did make me see these “Pilgrims’–they called themselves the Saints–in a new light.
Deetz based his book on archaeological digs in and around Plymouth. His careful research debunked many of the myths handed down in American legend. The Times of Their Lives reveals a more accurate picture of life in those early settlements; Deetz writes about all aspects of the Pilgrims’ lives: religion, crime, marriage, farming. Deetz told the Los Angeles Times that we could “better understood [their lives] if we think of the Pilgrims as bawdy Elizabethans, which they were. They were hearty drinkers, they liked to dance, and they swore. Court records from Plymouth Colony show drunken behavior in public, fighting, swearing.” Not exactly the impression I was given in my elementary school Weekly Readers.
My trip to Plymouth was very much like reading The Hour of the Witch. The monuments and landmarks presented the conventional view–and anyone who grew up with those Weekly Reader images should have been satisfied. But the reality of this nation’s settlement is more than granite and rocks.
Plimoth Patuxet Museum was an amazing site, the entire village constructed by interpretive staff and volunteers using “period techniques and tools.” The interpreters took on their persona fully, speaking in the dialect of the early 1600s. Visitors can converse with the interpreters and they never break role. On the rainy day I visited, I spoke with two young men sheltering for the day in Master Bradford’s house; a young couple, newly arrived; and a single woman anxious to find a husband. In the late 1970s, a move was made to include the Patuxet Native people in the narrative and today there is an adjacent Native American village.
I am glad to have visited Plymouth (and Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard) but I’m even more grateful to have read Deetz’s work to serve as a backdrop–one that challenged our cartoon version of events.