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Booklist: The Coming of the Pilgrims

A new category of posts: books for young readers about issues related to American history, politics, democracy…

With Thanksgiving coming, we grabbed a stack of Thanksgiving books from our local library, including:  The Coming of the Pilgrims by E. Brooks Smith and Robert Meredith.

Written by two scholars, with the idea of introducing the original source material to children, the book is a really interesting, well-done account of the Pilgrims emigration from England, to Holland, to Plymouth, and the story of their subsequent hardship and struggle over that first brutally hard winter.

What’s most interesting about the book is how closely it hews to Governor William Bradford’s original text (Of Plymouth Plantation). It has strong echoes of his language throughout–many, many times “it pleased God” to help the Pilgrims, etc. et. al.–and it makes use of several of the more interesting events in his account–the near drowning and surprising salvation of John Howland, for instance, or the near explosion of the Mayflower by that “foolish boy” Francis Billington (but by God’s mercy…no harm was done).

The book is absolutely not without problems, and it certainly does nothing to tell the Native American side of the story.  But if you read this book with your child, there is ample opportunity for close and careful reading, and to discuss what exactly the Pilgrims did wrong with respect to the “Indians”-they stole their food, for one, and went at them with muskets, for another.

While we were reading, Ella and I had a good discussion about whether or not God really favored the PIlgrims over all others as they believed (she decided not), and what happened after that first Thanksgiving (the slaughter and exile).  She began to understand exactly what it took for the Pilgrims to get here, and what they did right and wrong as they set out to build their colony.

Mostly, I love this book because I’m a history geek.

I read many of the original Early American documents in graduate school (Winthrop & Edwards sermons and speeches, Mather’s tome on witchcraft, William Appess, etc.), including the whole of Bradford’s account, more than once. These books are not easy going (you would probably never read them unless you were getting a doctoral degree), but they’re really interesting, and the Pilgrims are interesting, too. They were extraordinarily brave, they faced unbelievable hardship, they survived against many odds, and their faith and deep belief in God’s providence–they he had a guiding plan for them–is truly something to marvel at, if only because the psychology is so foreign to our modern sensibility.  To understand early American history, you have to understand that Pilgrims didn’t think like we do. And this book is a really excellent introduction to that practical and psychological history.  If you can take time to read it with your children, they’ll have a complex understanding of just how things played out in the first days of the colony.

Ella and I decided that the pilgrims did many admirable, brave things, but that they also did some terrible, wrong things. They were complicated, and interesting, and far from perfect.

Sort of sadly, if you want this book, you’ll have to find it at your library or buy it used on Amazon because it’s quite old and no longer in print. But if you’re interested in the earliest American history, it’s an interesting find.

But you might find this unbelievably weird and dry.  So tell me, what are your favorite history-of-Thanksgiving books to read with your children?


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