Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Being There: Squanto's Journey by Joseph Bruchac

Thanksgiving is a unique American holiday--part historical, part religious, and part family tradition. All Americans educated in our public schools recall the November ritual of reenacting the Pilgrim story in plays, in Indian and Pilgrim classroom feasts, in art class Pilgrim figures or colorful squash and baby pumpkins filling the classroom cornucopia. Paper Pilgrim hats and aprons, crayoned drawings of the Mayflower and Pilgrim families--all are part of our Thanksgiving memories.

As we now know, many of these traditions are myths: Pilgrims didn't always dress in black and gray or wear tall-crowned hats with buckles, or go about their work grimly spouting proverbs. The job of filling in a more accurate representation of the historical portion of our holiday has been taken up by children's authors with zeal and skill in recent years. Here are a few books which provide a more thoroughly researched version of that story.

If you ever wondered how Squanto showed up at that new colony of Plimoth Plantation improbably speaking rather fluent English, Joseph Bruchac's noted Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving remains the best source for young readers on this iconic figure in our early history. Squanto's people, the Patuxets, were in 1614 actually trading partners with Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame. Already a pniese, a man of honor in the tribe, Squanto trusted Smith implicitly, so that when another Enlishman, Thomas Hunt, invited Squanto and 21 others onto his ship for dinner, he unsuspectingly walked into a trap in which all were captured and taken to Malaga, Spain, to be sold as slaves. Luckily, Squanto was bought by sympathetic friars who taught him Spanish and how to get by in his new culture. Wishing to help this intelligent and admirable young man return to his people, the friars helped Squanto journey to England in hopes of his finding a way back home.

After some years in England, where he became a creditable English speaker as well, Captain Thomas Dermer took him on board for a voyage back to New England as a translator. There Squanto learned that a strange disease, likely transmitted by the European traders, had killed his family and most of the others in the Wamponoag group. In the place of his village, Squanto found a small group of English families building the new settlement of Plimoth.

Among the weakened remnants of the indigenous people in the area, power politics were in play. Squanto was again captured, this time by Epanow of the Capawack tribe and traded to the Pokonokets, of whom Massasoit was chief. Squanto persuaded Massasoit that it was in his interest to ally himself with the new settlers against potential attacks by the more powerful Narragansetts, and when Samoset showed up to recruit Squanto as translator between the Indians and the English colonists, Squanto was ready. And as we say, the rest is history.

Well researched and written in scholarly but readable prose, Bruchac's account of Squanto's journey to Europe and back home again is lively and informative reading. In addition to the backstory of how Squanto acquired the linguistic and agricultural skills virtually to save the Plymouth settlers' lives during their initial year, Bruchac tells the story of the first feast of thanksgiving as accurately as possible for young readers. It is an absorbing story of the bad and good fortune at the root of our national Thanksgiving festival.

Another updated and well documented account of the the early days of Plymouth is found in 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving (I Am American). Interestingly, Margaret Bruchac, Joseph Bruchac's sister, is a contributor to this historical account of the first Thanksgiving from the viewpoint of the Wampanoags who were co-hosts of that first harvest festival. For a full review of this excellent book, see my post of November 9, 2007.

For young readers, three short fictional works recommend themselves for their mostly faithful historical detail and appeal to elementary readers. They are Day In The Life Of A Pilgrim Girl (Sarah Morton's Day), Tapenum's Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy In Pilgrim Times, and Samuel Eaton's Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy. For a realistic feel for life around the early Plimoth Plantation, these three short and well-illustrated books give youngsters a "you-are-there" experience of those times.



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