The Adventurous Life of Myles Standish, by Cheryl Harness. National Geographic, 2006, 143 pages. Age/interest level: 8 and up.
Thanksgiving means a raid on the supply cabinet to find those orange and brown streamers, fat turkeys and apple-cheeked pilgrim boys and girls to staple to the bulletin board. But who were the pilgrims, really? As Emily pointed out yesterday in her round-up of books for younger readers, it’s hard to get a truly balanced treatment of Pilgrims-and-Indians these days, when “Puritan” has become a term of reproach and one can hardly mention Native Americans without spreading a thick layer of soppy praise for their environmentally-friendly lifestyle (as if they had a choice!). In recommending straight history for older readers (ages 10-14), I find myself coming back to Cheryl Harness, whom we’ve met before. Cheryl loves history for its own sake. She’s also fascinated by personality. People seem to matter more to her than agendas; she tries to understand them in their context.
Many years ago, I stumbled across a series of titles by Genevieve Foster: The World of George Washington, The World of Caesar Augustus, The World of Christopher Columbus, etc. In these books, Ms. Foster used the life of the title character to explore world history: what was going on in China that motivated Columbus to set out on a new route to the Indies? What were thinkers thinking in Europe that encouraged the 13 Colonies to gamble on independence? I found these profusely-illustrated books to be fascinating, even though the names and events sometimes bogged down the central story.
Cheryl Harness Histories are “World of” books without the overkill. The narratives are straightforward and conversational, often humorous, with a strong focus on the main character and his immediate surroundings. Instead of divergent chapters to tell what else is happening around the world, a continuous timeline at the bottom of each page notes significant events and people, while sidebars elaborate further on political or social details.
So let’s look at the “History” that’s especially pertinent to November: The Adventurous Life of Myles Standish and the Amazing but True Survival Story of Plymouth Colony. Subtitled: “Barbary Pirates, the Mayflower, The First Thanksgiving, and Much, MUCH More.” The prologue begins with a poem by William Bradford, first governor of Plymouth colony: “From my years young in days of youth/ God did make known to me his truth,/ and call’d me from my native place/ For to enjoy the means of grace . . .”
William Bradford is an important figure in Standish’s story, and gets his full due as a passionate seeker after God. So do the other Pilgrims—Standish was not one of them, but he returned their regard. Not so the common sailors aboard the Mayflower, who resented their passengers: “One in particular kept threatening to toss them all overboard—until he got sick, so sick that he died. It was his body that went into the sea. Had God Himself, the superstitious sailors wondered, punished their big-mouthed buddy? They cut out the teasing, just in case.”
When the passengers made landfall at last, it wasn’t where they expected to be, and a leadership crisis loomed . That was the impetus for writing the Mayflower Compact, a brilliant solution to what might have become mutiny, and an early example of American initiative. Once on land, Captain Standish came into his own as a quick hand with a musket and a level-headed advisor. Not bad as a diplomat, either, helping to negotiate a peace with Massasoit, the nearest chief, that lasted forty years. The not-so-local Indians (Wessagussets) were more of a problem, but the Captain was no bigot. Hobomok, of Massosoit’s tribe, became practically a member of the Standish family. Hobomok turned out to be a happy exception to the rule, as relations between natives and white settlers went downhill when more settlers arrived. A clash of civilizations usually produces casualties, but Harness treats a complex story with respect toward both sides.
As for the MUCH More: a diagram of the Mayflower and list of its passengers, a diorama of Plymouth and who lived where, the menu for the first Thanksgiving, a map of Europe showing religious persuasions, a map of America showing major native tribes pre-1600, the Mayflower Compact, a sidebar on 16th-century navigation, another on the Gregorian calendar, and lots of drawings in the lively Harness style.
After similar Cheryl Harness Histories on the life & times of Daniel Boone, Washington Irving, Narcissa Whitman, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Washington Carver, the powers that be at National Geographic decided that sales were too low to continue. But I have a dream that the demand from homeschoolers and others interested in solid, non-PC history for children will encourage a rise in sales. Maybe, eventually, more titles. In the meantime, there’s probably no better general introduction to the Plymouth story for middle grades than The Adventurous Life of Miles Standish.
And one quick addition to yesterday’s post: Cheryl’s picture book, Three Young Pilgrims, is a slightly fictionalized account of Remember, Bartholomew, and Mary Allerton, who arrived with their parents on the Mayflower. Originally published in 1992, it’s still available in paperback–an excellent all-around introduction to the Plymouth story for little ones.
And now . . . THE CONTEST!
I have a softcover copy of The Adventurous Life of Myles Standish to give away. To enter the contest, please share with us your favorite Thanksgiving tradition: either one you’ve heard about and want to try, one your family practices now, or one you remember from childhood. How do you make your Thanksgivings a true celebration of gratitude? Make your replies in the “comments” section, and we’ll post them all the Wednesday before Thanksgiving—as well as announcing the winner!