“It is a solemn sight to see so many Christians lying in their blood, some here, and some there, like a company of sheep torn by wolves, all of them stripped naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting, and insulting, as if they would have torn our very hearts out; yet the Lord by His almighty power preserved a number of us from death, for there were twenty-four of us taken alive and carried captive.” - Mary Rowlandson
The captive narrative of Mary Rowlandson, redeemed prisoner of native tribes that fought for their land and lifestyle during King Philip's War, became an instant phenomenon when it was published in 1682. Mary was the wife of Joseph Rowlandson, pastor for the frontier settlement of Lancaster, Massachusetts. During the winter of 1675, the settlement was attacked by Nipmuck, Narragansett, and Wampanoag tribal warriors. The homes and barns were burnt, many of its citizens killed, and twenty four survivors were taken captive.
Amy Belding Brown takes the bare bones of this horrific chapter of Colonial American history and builds a strong fictional account of Mary Rowlandson's voyage into the heart of native culture and back again. Brown does not 'gild the lily' by trying to write a romantic account. She honestly confronts the harsh forced trudge of the captives as they deny their wounds in an effort to survive the pace that their captors set, negotiate a new culture with the confusing babel of different tribes' languages, vastly different sexual politics, and confounding behaviors that can seem at one moment brutal and at another compassionate.
Mary loses one daughter on the forced march west and north toward the modern day New Hampshire/Massachusetts border and the Connecticut River valley. When Sarah dies, her body is buried by the natives in a show of respect to Mary's beliefs. Mary must move on, praying that her other two children are being treated well by their captors and that her husband, Joseph survived the attack and is working toward her release and redemption.
As time passes,though, Mary comes to be conflicted about her perceptions of the natives and their culture. She finds much freedom, even as a captive. She comes to value her connection to nature and the beauty of the natural world around her, and she values her burgeoning friendships with certain of her native captors and fellow 'slaves'. She questions God's purpose in placing her in the position of a slave and begins to see it as an awakening experience, meant to make her question the values and policies of her Puritan world. She worries how she will ever adapt to a return to English society should she be 'redeemed'.
This book is an excellent treatment of the captive experience that Rowlandson and others suffered during the great cultural clash between the colonizing and native cultures of the 17th century. Amy Belding Brown has taken historical fiction and used the genre well to bring a harrowing time to life for the reader, giving a thought-provoking take on a brutal time. It is obvious that she researched her topic well, as the novel closely follows events as written in the true-life account that Mary Rowlandson wrote of in her book called The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson. That narrative was published in 1682. Belding's novel continues Mary's story after her ransom and brings into question the role of Increase Mather, the influential Puritan pastor and academic in its writing and publication. Mary's reversal of circumstances create an unsettling feeling within the reader ...she becomes the sparrow in the cage - once captive in a cage, set free during a chaotic clash, only to return to the cage at a later date. What to make of the sparrow's song? Hmmmm.
It left me wondering just how well Mary truly adapted when she did return to English society after her ransom was paid and she made her way home.
Post Note: I found this book so compelling because one of my husband's ancestors, one John Allbee, was a victim of the Mendon massacre of July 1675, carried out by the same native tribes that attacked Mary Rowlandson's Lancaster in February of that year. Benjamin and his grandson, John Allbee (the younger) fled the region and settled for a time near Rehoboth, Massachusetts before going north into New Hampshire and Vermont after the natives had been 'subdued'.