Squanto’s Journey

A confession:  I love Pilgrims.

I think Pilgrims are underrated, misunderstood, and oversimplified.  “Pilgrims” by the way accurately refers only to those Puritans who sailed on the Mayflower and established a colony at Plymouth in 1620.  For instance, while Pilgrim chastity is the stuff of legend, you might be interested to know that all sexual deviance–from homosexuality to sex with turkeys and goats (which really is historically documented: in one incredible scene in which a young man accused of the latter actually points out the specific turkeys he had relation with…)–was considered the same order of sin.  And while they did believe that everything was Providential (according to God’s will) they knew one could never really, truly know that one was elect. You might be pretty certain, but you could never be positive.  This led to much study and scholarship, cultivated soul searching and personal responsibility. The rebelled against the corrupt Anglican church and thus cultivated, ironically, a kind of independent thinking.  They worked hard and were humble. All those stereotypical New England Puritan virtues are based in some interesting historical fact.

Moreover, their journey from grave persecution in England to Holland to the “New” World took over 13 years, and the passage and arrival was difficult and epic.  They arrived in winter, in Massachussets, to a wild and unforgiving coast. True, the Native Americans had survived there for a long time, and there were other colonies, but the Pilgrims were ill-equipped for the task.  Plus, nearly half of their 100 members died that first winter. It was a difficult and terrible time, and no one was certain of survival. But thanks to the help of the Wampanoag and especially the Pautaxet Squanto, they survived and even thrived. Thus, the first Thanksgiving really was a feast of plenty and of thanks, and it was attended by twice as many Native Americans as Pilgrims. Also, it lasted 3 days, at the end of which the Indians shot and offered 5 deer to the colonists, which no doubt helped them through the 2nd winter. And while this interval of good will between Pilgrims and Indians did not last, it was real and significant, and it marked a turning point in the colony’s success.

So one of my missions (in life? in my family?) is to translate what was incredible about their story in a meaningful and balanced (and, of course age appropriate) way. I think that if you consider the first Thanksgiving in the context of the Pilgrim’s really extraordinary exile, hardship, adventure, starvation, illness, compromise, and reliance on the Indians,  it becomes, truly, a kind of miraculous story of survival and success and a moment of peace and possibility.  Modern Thanksgiving is about none of this, and I think that’s kind of too bad.

For instance, how many of us celebrates Thanksgiving as a religious holiday? (Which was certainly part of the Pilgrim’s feast, since everything returned to God..)

And how many of us really, truly celebrates it as a feast of harvest or plenty?   How many of us shop exclusively at farmer’s markets for the season’s bounty for tables? How many go and shoot the abundant native fowl or deer in our regions? Or even bother to search out an heirloom bird? Or fish in local waters for the abundant catch available at harvest time? (there were a lot of lobsters in New England).  That we don’t is okay, of course. Traditions morph.  But I do think it’s important to remember what started all of this feasting anyway, and remember that simply being thankful for family and health and abundance in our middle class home is something we should do everyday of the year. It seems sort of empty to me to make this the only focus of the holiday. Then again, I do have a PhD in American literature. I love history. And Pilgrims.

In sum: I think the day is enriched for kids if it’s put into an accurate historical and sort of somber historical context.

Thus: every year, we make a Thanksgiving movie (See 2007 & 2008). This year, Ella, who is on the fast track to becoming a spy reporter and has a penchant for writing nonfiction decided we had to make an Historical & Fun movie.  Of course, I leapt at the chance in and in less time than it takes to Google Mayflower, I was parsing my grad school copy of William Bradford’s journal-turned-formal-account of Pilgrim History, Of Plymouth Plantation and reading her the juicy bits about the journey and the landing at Plymouth and the first Thanksgiving (but not, of course, the turkeys…)  The book became our primary source for the film (which should be released this weekend, God of the Pilgrims willing) and I never thought I’d see the day my 7-year-old parsed a footnote of a 17th century text looking for a detail.

Of course, I’m not recommending you all go read the entirety of Bradford’s account, which really is best studied in a PhD seminar, but the short DVD William Bradford: The First Thanksgiving in The Animated Hero classic series is excellent as far as Pilgrims go.  It’s historically accurate and gives children a good sense of their decades of hardship and deprivation as well as the absolute necessity of Squanto and the Wampanoag in their surivival.  Paired with the really excellent Squanto’s Journey by Joseph Bruchac, which details Squato’s kidnapping, the decimation of his tribe, his return to America and his providential meeting with the colonists,  your child can have a fuller, deeper, more balanced and accurate sense of what that first feast was all about and why any of us should give a damn about the Pilgrims and Indians and in the first place.

Next year, it’s Squanto’s turn.