Plymouth, Massachusetts was set to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing in 2020, although many events had to be cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic. For many years, the story of the brave, sturdy Pilgrims and their noble quest for religious freedom had been an unexamined “truth.” However, other stories—of native peoples robbed of their lands and their lives, and of a community that was neither fair nor free—must now be contemplated along with the myths of Plymouth.
TaraShea Nesbit sets her novel in 1630 Plymouth, on an August day when new colonists are set to arrive, and when tempers are ready to boil over from old slights and grievances. Individuals who have been silenced by history— the governor’s wife, Alice Bradford; and non-separatists John and Elinor Billington—are given voice and point of view. As Nesbit notes: “In telling this story, I wanted to add more possibilities to our collective imagination about ‘the pilgrims.’”
Alice is Bradford’s second wife and had been girlhood friends with his first wife Dorothy. Dorothy drowned while the Mayflower was moored in Plymouth harbor and passengers were waiting to debark; there’s some question as to whether she fell or she jumped, in despair. When Alice catches her husband writing in, and then hiding, a “leather-bound,” she’s tempted to take a peek:
I opened the book, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620, it said, and in William’s penmanship, In their hearts, they were pilgrims. . . .
The story of us. Not I and him, but of us believers, in Holland, and the Mayflower journey, and the last ten years here. In vanity, I looked for myself, but I was not there. And after myself, I looked for Dorothy. . . . All the deaths aboard the ship and all the deaths that first winter were there, except the death her, his first wife . . . There were other things, too, that William did not speak of . . .
William scarcely mentioned how we buried our dead and did not say that in the worst of times, that first winter, we propped our dead Englishmen against the trees at the edges of our colony, with muskets, to make it seem as if we had soldiers amongst us, a forest sentinel, and not the truth: that we had lost more than half of our people.
Looking back, Alice sees that the distractions of the day—her chores, her children, her memories, this book—have kept her from seeing “seeing the signs of what was to come later that afternoon.”
John and Elinor signed on to the Mayflower as indentured servants, aiming for a better life in a new land. Just as in England, however, they found themselves on the bottom: caring for sick Pilgrims in the first, most difficult years; now chafing at the strictures of the puritan ruling class (or as the Billingtons refer to them privately, “the hypocrites”). Seething rage is their default mode; Elinor ruminates, in her distinctly caustic tone:
. . . when our seven years [of indenture] were complete what did my husband get? What did we get for caring for all those weak, dying creatures, for surviving when most of them did not? The smallest plot in all the colony, that is what we got.
So when those hypocrites looked their cherubic faces my way and claimed to themselves to be the saints, and I, a stranger to God? Ho, ho, I said to them. They were as flimsy in mind and spirit as saplings. I feared them not, and loved their surprise at my bawdy self.
The first part of Beheld artfully foreshadows a catastrophe; parts two and three deliver the consequences. As Alice says: “We often do not know what things mean to us until they are broken.”
Beheld is the most satisfying kind of historical fiction. It re-creates a historical incident, breathes life into historical figures, while using the storyteller’s arts to examine motivations, replay memories, and build a convincing narrative out of a few scant biographical records. At least within the pages of this book, these figures, long forgotten, are worthy of consideration, of being “beheld” instead of being dismissed