I know this book is older than most of the ones I do, but I was absolutely obsessed with this book as a kid (why? Who knows) and I found my old copy and couldn’t let it go.
Constance: A Story of Early Plymouth, Patricia Clapp, 1968.
Look at that cover. I wouldn’t say it was a masterwork of art, but hey, my copy says “4.95” on the back cover so clearly we weren’t dealing with an absolute bulwark of the literary world.
Now, my copy of this definitely says “10 Up,” and I read it when I was ten or so, but…wow, this was an awfully big step from most of the other stuff I was reading at that age! And while I’m sure I could understand it just fine, I definitely did not Get It because there is a lot of kissing, relationship tangles, and political infighting in this book that just flew straight over my head. Why did I like it so much at ten??? The world will never know.
I think in particular the great strength of this book is that it’s not about the voyage of the Mayflower and the landing on Plymouth Rock. I mean, it happens, obviously, but the emphasis is on what happens next which almost never happens. It’s kind of like how there’s lots of YA books about the Civil War, but none about the Reconstruction period, or lots of books about the Revolutionary War but none about the years afterward. But I think it’s particular important in this story, because usually the narrative around the Pilgrims is “they landed on Plymouth Rock, plenty of them died, Squanto saves them, they had Thanksgiving while wearing buckle hats, and then we skip right to the Salem Witch Trials.” Duh, there was a lot of stuff in the meantime that gets glossed over! But this book does a great job of going into some detail.
So as we open, in 1620, Constance and her family are just arriving at the Plymouth shore, which she is not particular enthusiastic about, saying “I have no wish to be starved to death in this bare place, and eaten by wild animals, and killed by savages—” to which her father says “’Tis unlikely that you will die more than once, and therefore you will escape at least two of these fates.” But her point remains that she is extremely opposed to the whole move, and would much rather just go back to London. Her stepmother, Elizabeth, has given her a journal to write things down about her thoughts rather than taking them out on the rest of the family (she’s 15, enough said). You know, one of the things I like very much about this book is its portrayal of a really positive, strong stepmother figure. Elizabeth never forces Constance to call her “mother” and never treats her any differently from her own children, and Constance eventually comes be very, very close with her. At first she’s very standoffish, since she misses her own mother very much (dead for the past seven years), but the trials of living in a frontier town eventually bring them to be very close. It’s not a main theme of the book or anything, but it’s really nicely done.
Anyway, it’s months before they find a good enough place to build, bobbing up and down the coast and making everyone insane with cabin fever. Isn’t it funny? Usually we think that the Pilgrims just sailed directly to Plymouth Rock, hopped out, had some inspirational moments and penned some poems about setting foot on virgin soil, and then immediately set to building their town. Not so, as Constance eloquently says, and it isn’t until January (three months later) that they begin building a common house. Not a moment too soon, either, as immediately everyone starts coming down with a horrid fever and dying miserably in said Common House. While at first Constance stays far away, when her father becomes ill she’s forced to pitch in like everybody else.
He recovers, but Constance’s little sister Damaris dies, along with about half the population. Half! Literally—fifty-one of the 102 people who left England.
But things begin to recover slowly after that, and Constance’s family gets a little house of their own—her, Elizabeth and Mr. Hopkins, her younger brother Giles, their two bondsmen “The Two Teds,” and the infant Oceanus. It’s small, but when an Indian pops up (Samoset), Constance’s father has him over to dinner and to stay the night. She is petrified by this turn of events, since she’s deeply afraid of the Indians (as were most of the settlers), but he doesn’t like, knife them in their beds or anything.
In the spring the Mayflower leaves, and they’re really on their own. But things have mostly settled down in terms of everyone dying in a hot hurry, despite various misadventures, and by the fall their initial crops have actually managed to grow more or less as they had hoped. They have their Thanksgiving feast, along with a hundred or so Indians who turn up with several deer, and Constance has her first potential suitor—John Cooke, who kisses her on the beach, but Constance is more interested in the fact that they’ll be having turkey for dinner and she really likes turkey. But at the feast itself, everyone gets a little drunk, and Ted Dotey kisses Constance. Then the other Ted gets jealous, because there aren’t a whole lot of available women in Plymouth and Constance is reasonably pretty and agreeable.
In November or so another ship shows up with a number of more settlers, including a redheaded guy named Stephen Deane, who lives with the Hopkins family along with a couple other single dudes for a while. But the newcomers are already creating problems, since they brought thirty-five people to feed but no food of their own, and clash with the governor over whether or not to work on Christmas Day. Stephen is interested in Constance, but so are the two Teds, who actually get into a duel on the beach in February over her affections. God, it’s dramatic. When I was a teenager I wanted boys to duel over me, but in this book it was definitely more terrifying than fun and exciting. Which is probably how I suppose it would be in real life, come to think of it.
In June of the next year, Samoset’s daughter comes into Plymouth and pays Constance a visit, and this is probably the one great flaw of the book. I mean I get it, it was the 60s, the Noble Savage thing was in vogue, but Minnetuxet is very “buckskins and braids Indian Princess,” which is a trifle aggravating. And she doesn’t really bring anything to the story, either, other than to teach Constance about how Indians aren’t all evil murderers and so on. But it’s a little obvious, because…none of the Indians are evil murderers at all. Who even knows.
Later that summer Oceanus dies from a fever, exacerbated by malnutrition, since there’s almost nothing to eat there but corn. Elizabeth is expecting another baby in the spring, but in the meantime Constance develops an enormous crush on Stephen Deane. That’s an awful lot of drama for one house. Elizabeth gives birth to a son in March, and in between times Constance is pursued by both Stephen and John Cooke and the two Teds. At the end of the summer they’re joined by another ship, with many of the families of the existing townspeople. And another man, Nicholas Snow, whom Constance finds incredibly infuriating because of his general irreverent attitude towards Plymouth in general.
In order to finance the original Pilgrims’ trip to the Plymouth, the settlers had a group of London merchants front them the money to be paid back later. The settlers are pretty busy trying to, you know, not starve to death, and don’t have all the free time to trap beavers and catch fish that the London financiers had hoped for. So they’re in debt and yet London keeps sending them more mouths to feed and annoying letters asking for their payment.
By the winter, Stephen is in full-blown pursuit of Constance, and she keeps going back and forth about whether or not she wants to marry him or not. She doesn’t know what love is, or what she’ll feel like, or even if she should place too much credence in love after all since there’s so much work to be done in Plymouth anyway. So Constance and Stephen are in the woods collecting wood, and kissing, and Stephen is trying his best to be romantic and sexy, and Constance whispers to him “My feet are cold.” It’s fucking hilarious. He is PISSED OFF, and Constance doesn’t really understand why, but she is pretty excited to be home where she can warm up her feet. I totally did not understand this part as a kid, but it is really funny now. (I doubt most other ten-year-olds would have gotten it either. Am I wrong?)
They have more problems, though, when a John Oldham who came to Plymouth on one of the later ships starts writing nasty letters to their financial backers in London saying that everyone in Plymouth is stealing from each other, and they’re all scummy dirtbags, etc. He and the new reverend, Lyford, spend a lot of time colluding together about the best way to trash all the settlers. So the governor confiscates all his letters before they’re mailed back to England, and they have a big confrontation about how Oldham is deliberately slandering the village. They’re sent away, but they do come pretty close to severely damaging Plymouth’s reputation.
I really enjoy this whole subplot—I think it lends a lot of depth to the Plymouth story, as does the constant harping on how hungry and miserable they all are. It sucks, yeah, but it does a great job of developing a more complex and adult theme. And it’s a kids’ book! I’m impressed. It helps that the book is almost 250 pages long, because apparently kids in the 1960s and 70s had longer attention spans than kids twenty years later.
Anyway, Constance is forced to sit through an incredibly awkward conversation between her father, Stephen, and Nicholas Snow about fishing, and Constance’s father is totally unaware that they are talking about more than fish, if you catch my drift. In August (of 1625), Stephen finally gets up the courage to ask Constance to marry him, to which she sort of vaguely consents. She’s afraid, and not entirely convinced, and chalks it all up to not knowing what marriage will be like, but ultimately thinks that it won’t be too terribly bad, no matter what. Ah, what a ringing endorsement. Stephen and Nicholas and a few other young men set off for a few days of fishing in the fall, and Constance spends the whole time fretting that something terrible will happen to them all. When she hears that they’re headed back, she bolts to meet them and tries to run right to Nicholas—and John Cooke is the one to stop her and turn her back towards Stephen, even though she’s completely freaking out. Stephen isn’t a complete idiot, he can see what’s going on, but he just thanks John Cooke for catching her and says nothing.
But Constance spends a couple months fretting, and trying to avoid seeing Nicholas, and generally being miserable. She’s in the woods gathering kindling one afternoon when Nicholas tracks her down and tells her that she can’t possibly marry Stephen, because she’s in love with him. Constance spends the whole conversation sobbing wildly and telling Nicholas that she loves him, and thinking everything is a wreck. Which, in fairness, it is. And Nicholas is holding her while they’re sitting there in the snow trying to figure things out, and confesses that it’s freezing sitting—and they laugh, and that’s how Constance knows that she’s finally making the right decision. They go back to the village, where Stephen is hanging around waiting for Constance, and he consents to breaking their engagement.
They’re married in February of 1626, which is the happy ending of the book, and it’s totally satisfying and enjoyable.
Rating: A-. I really enjoyed this book, much more so than when I read it as a kid. It’s surprisingly funny and engaging and sweet, and I’ve mentioned that I really love the subplots about familial love and the political and social entanglements that endanger the village. It’s excellently written, not boring at all, and it even features time-appropriate attitudes towards Indians. The only thing bumping it down from a straight A-rating is the useless addition of Minnetuxet, the Indian girl. Other than that, I love it.