I have to cleanse my palate with something not horrifyingly bad after the past couple of books, so I thought I would go with a much-beloved classic Dear America instead.
Book: A Journey to the New World, The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple: Mayflower, 1620, Kathryn Lasky, 1996.
Kathryn Lasky is one of my favourite Dear America authors, and this is the very first book published in the series and an awesome kickoff. Basically all American schoolkids grow up with the story of the Pilgrims, as flawed and full of holes as it is, and this is an interesting introduction to how, you know, there’s More To The Story than that. I also must confess that this book came out right around the time I was in Grade 4 and we did a unit on the Pilgrims and we all got “Pilgrim names” and referred to each other by those names for like, three months, and this book was like my Bible at that point.
Remember, or Mem as she is called, is twelve years old and going to the New World with her mother and father and baby sister, Blessing. They’re all “Saints,” or members of a church in religious revolt from King James, but the most important thing in the first couple of pages is that Mem and everyone else is just sick as a dog and vomiting copiously. Ah, truth in history.
It’s also covered how the ship was intended to go to Virginia, near Jamestown, to become a planting settlement. But again, what’s more relevant to Mem is the constant puking and “scours,” which is a nice way of saying “violent diarrhea,” as well as the stink of the ship and the lack of privacy and how mean the sailors are.
It turns out that Mem and her family are traveling from Holland, where they fled years ago to escape persecution from the King, but they found Holland to be rather too frivolous for their liking. When Blessing began to speak a little Dutch, their mother nearly had a fit and a couple of months later they were headed for the New World. (I am slightly disappointed that this book falls into the classic trope of “girls actually hate sewing and traditionally feminine pursuits” as a way of relating them to the modern reader, because I think it plays into irritating notions of traditionally-feminine pursuits being coded as “less than,” but that’s a nitpick.)
Mem’s best friend is named Humility, or Hummy for short, who is traveling with her father, a pretty morose person. Dorothy Bradford, the wife of William (who are real historical people), is also pretty damn depressed at leaving behind their ten-year-old son for his own safety. Mem and Hummy are devastated when a friend of theirs dies of ship fever and is buried at sea. This is the first time anyone close to Mem has ever died, and it’s pretty rattling to her and not an awesome foreshadowing of what will happen in the next few months. (Hint: More death.)
They spot the New World in November, sixty-five days after setting sail, and come into Cape Cod Bay. I do appreciate how it’s made very clear that the Mayflower sailors are not the first ones to be there, and that the coastline has been mapped and named with some regularity already. Nevertheless, they’re all delighted to be able to walk on the beach, draw fresh water, wash their clothes, and generally to be off a 95-foot-long ship that’s been their home for two months. I can’t blame them, I would have strangled someone to be off that boat.
But the process of getting settled on land takes quite a while, where Mem whines about being bored in one of the most realistic series of diary entries ever committed to print. She makes four entries in a row discussing how bored she is, and I did exactly the same thing at age twelve so I’m not here to judge. Some men go out exploring and find a cache of corn hidden in the ground along with some dried venison and beads. (There is a very interesting counterpoint to this story in the Royal Diary book Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets, Massachusetts-Rhode Island 1653 that I will cover when I recap that one.) People are pretty urgent to get off the ship and onto land since it’s nearly December, but they’re dithering about trying to find a good place to stay, and fear of the native population is keeping them more or less confined to the ship.
Dorothy Bradford is the first person to die in the New World, by a tragic accident of slipping on the icy deck and into the freezing sea at night. It’s left a bit ambiguous—there’s room to interpret that she killed herself (which there is some evidence to support)—but the idea is that it was a true accident. Not too much long after this, the men return and fasten the ship in Plimoth Harbor, which will be their settlement.
At their first landing, Mem is frustrated by the pushiness of some of the other children who are trying to shove their way onto Plimoth Rock, and in their haste push her into the sea. “Think about it. If the tide would have been right and we could have landed on the beach, well we would have all climbed out more or less at the same time. But this rock, large but small enough to only accommodate a few, changed all that. It gave a truly specific place that their stupid feet could set down on. The place could be memorialized and stupid old Mary Chilton will have her name forever linked to this chunk of rock. She’ll probably have her stupid children build a stupid statue to her here.” I defy you to find a better interpretation of a twelve-year-old in any historical era. I am so impressed with Kathryn Lasky’s absolute dedication to the irritable nature of a preteen even in the face of a tremendously significant historical scene.
The Pilgrims remain on the ship through December, and the numbers of dead begin to mount slowly thanks to scurvy and fever in the cold, wet New England winter. I get whiny when I have to go six steps to my car without putting on my boots, so suffice it to say I would probably be one of the first ones dead on that hellhole of a ship. If only from extreme irritation at the lack of privacy.
There’s also a little entry where Mem and her friend take Blessing ashore for a little fresh air, but they have to keep her on “her lead ribbons for fear she will run off to where they are felling timber and get smacked by a falling tree.” I find this ineffably charming and it’s the reason I won’t feel guilty about putting my own kids on leashes if necessary. How do you think pioneers and farm women took care of kids too young to know better but old enough to master running? Leashes.
But Mem’s mother is ailing, as are many others, and Mem doesn’t write about it much out of fear. Myles Standish’s wife dies, as do several others—Hannah Potts’ husband, several children, and others. Hannah Potts gives birth just as her husband dies, but the baby dies as well, and the following day Mem’s mother is taken to the sick shed with the rest of them. They lose fourteen people in one week—a terrible blow for a settlement with only a hundred people in it to begin with.
Hummy’s father works in the sick shed, but they eventually send him away for a truly awful reason—he becomes withdrawn and slow and spends the nights talking aloud to his late wife. He spends his time in the sick shed talking to those who are nearest death, and asking them to pass messages to his wife that he is on his way to her. Hummy is, of course, wildly distraught and embarrassed by this, but she’s twelve years old—what can she do?
They’re all distracted a bit when Samoset comes to visit their village and speaks, of all things, English. Samoset tells them about the plague that decimated the area that left the fields cleared but empty of people, and tells them a little about Massasoit and the other tribes of the region. He brings Squanto after a day or two, who teaches them to plant corn properly.
Mam is mortified when she realizes that her mother is sicker than ever, but she hasn’t been noticing thanks to excitement of Samoset and Squanto in their village. The following day her mother dies in the morning, and the day after that Mem learns Hummy will be returning to England with her father. Mem is left in two days without her mother and her best friend, in a strange land with the spectre of sickness and death all around.
There is a two-month break while Mem grieves, and then returns to writing short, stilted entries for a while returning to form. In July Mem’s father asks Hannah Potts to come and look after Blessing while he and Mem work, and Mem begins to suspect that there is more afoot. Mem isn’t Hannah’s biggest fan, though, finding her irritating and snippy. Part of this is probably due to Mem’s guilt about losing her mother, and Hannah writes her a little note saying how difficult it is for Hannah to put her words to speech after her illness, and things go a tiny bit more smoothly after that.
In September Mem’s father approaches her about what she would think of Hannah as a stepmother, and Mem’s original misgivings give way after she considers how difficult it is for a man or a woman to be alone in the New World. They’re married in October—just after Mem’s father finds a little point on the coast and names it Grace after his late wife. Later that month they have a feast to commemorate their first growing season, and Massasoit brings ninety of his people to swell the general merriment.
Mem writes on the third day of the festival that she is not feeling well, and then nothing for three weeks, having been stricken by some kind of mysterious sickness. She recovers—thankfully—in time to expect a new ship later in November, with the hope that it will bring tools and seeds and all kind of things they need.
In the epilogue, we learn that Mem never sees Hummy again, and the settlement does not succeed, but they do manage a better living. Mem marries and her husband becomes a merchant of fish and lumber, and after she is widowed Hannah comes to live with them and becomes a baker of some renown. This is about as happy an ending as can be considered for any story about the Pilgrims.
Rating: A. Mem’s voice is true and memorable (hah!), endearing, and charming. The story is interesting without accidentally falling into Information Dump territory, and doesn’t trample too far onto the story of the native people who had already been living there. It’s wonderful and a breath of fresh air among children’s novels.