Do you remember those colorful pictures of the Puritans that appeared every November on the bulletin board of your third-grade classroom? Dark suited men with buckled shoes and tall black hats and docile women with bowed heads were depicted celebrating the harvest with agreeable, feathered Indians.
There may there may be some inconstancies in this iconic image.
According to TaraShea Nesbit, the author of the novel Beheld, which takes place in the early years of the Plymouth colony, the puritans were not really a religious sect at all. In the sixteenth century, the term puritan was in fact a pejorative term meaning “stickler” or “hypocrite.” It generally referred to Elizabethan Protestants who wanted to rid the Church of England of what they perceived as papist tendencies. The more accurate term for these reformers is Separatists, because they wanted to separate from the Church of England rather than to reform it from within.
Hence the looooong sea voyage to the New World.
Beheld is a fictional account of the early days of the Plymouth colony inspired by the true story of the execution of Anglican settler, John Billington.
New Plymouth in 163o is tiny community populated by the powerful, self-righteous puritans and their indentured servants, mostly Anglican, and nearby the members of the Wampanoag Indian tribe. The two principal narrators are the governor’s second wife, Alice, and a former indentured servant, Eleanor Billington.
The puritans are loathsome—pompous, cruel, mercenary, but no one in the colony comes out unscathed; the viciousness is everywhere. The place sounds like a snake pit, and not just because the weather is lousy and life expectancy short. But Governor Bradford only sends glowing accounts back to his investors in London to whom the colony is still indebted. The arrival of a new ship from England triggers an avalanche of trouble which culminates in the trial and hanging of John Billington.
I disliked Beheld, but the premise is interesting, and it is mercifully short. Some members of my book club enjoyed it more than I.
SUGGESTION: If you have tedious friend who claims that her family came over on the Mayflower, give her Beheld; she’ll never mention the connection again.
What Other Reviewers Say About Beheld
Helen Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand : “In a gripping retelling of the Plymouth colony’s first murder, we finally hear the voices of women-and they speak an unvarnished truth that turns history on its pointed-hatted head. Truly a riveting read.”
Who Wrote It
TaraShea Nesbit is the author of The Wives of Los Alamos, which was a national bestseller, a finalist for the PEN/Bingham Prize, and a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Her writing has been featured in Granta, the Guardian, Salon, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor at Miami University.