Thankful for Cheryl Harness

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!  (Contest Now Closed)

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!

For other posts about controversial characters and religious groups, see Salem’s Curse, Covenanters, Then and Now, and Columbus and the Founding of Our Nation.


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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Kim on November 15, 2011 at 10:40 am

    It’s kind of boring, but we do the obligatory going around the table and stating what we’re thankful for. This year we are going to also have each of our family members tell what they are thankful for about each family member (our kids have not been acting very grateful for their siblings lately!).

    I have not read this book yet, but your recommendation is enough for me! I am loving your blog!

  2. Sunny on November 15, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Sounds like a great book; my dd8 would certainly love it!

    My favorite tradition would be being with my immediate family, whether it’s with extended family and friends or just us. 🙂

  3. Tina Buchanan on November 15, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    My favorite thanksgiving tradition would is to create a “Reasons to Be Thankful” list from November 1st until Thanksgiving focusing on the character of God and His goodness to us.

  4. emily on November 15, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    I think my most important Thanksgiving tradition is “gobbling”. That is, I try to eat as much pumpkin pie as fast as possible before any one else can have any.

    Hmmm…Not sure that’s the kind of response you were looking for.

  5. Forrest on November 15, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    One of my favorite Thanksgiving traditions is the Wednesday evening Thanksgiving service. It’s one of our favorite services of the year.

    Thanks for your blog! I’m definitely planning to track down this book for my 10-year old.

  6. Jessica B. on November 16, 2011 at 5:45 am

    My favorite Thanksgiving tradition is eating traditional Puerto Rican food along with the traditional American feast. My mother came is Puerto Rican and came to live in VA as a teenager and for a while was ashamed of her heritage as a Latino person. Eating the Puerto Rican food is not just delicious, but it is also a reminder of our family’s story and how God brought my mom to a place where she heard and received the gospel- thus changing the trajectory of our family, her grandkids, etc etc. We are so very grateful for that and for how God has loved us even before we loved Him.

  7. johanna rogers on November 16, 2011 at 9:54 am

    My favorite Thanksgiving tradition is starting the day with a hike to find and cut down our Christmas tree!

  8. Stephanie on November 16, 2011 at 10:04 am

    My favorite family tradition is preparing a great meal together in the kitchen with loved ones and then relaxing to enjoy it together. (Of course the men have to get in a little bit of football as well.)

  9. Cathy Shelton on November 16, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    My favorite is our Thanksgiving Tree.
    We make a “Charlie Brown” tree out of a 3′ branched stick in a vase of sand or marbles. I get contruction paper leaf die cuts from the teacher store (the industrious or crafty can make them). From the Sunday before T’giving to the Saturday after (We like to keep Thanksgiving and not let Advent begin before it really does!), we each put at least one leaf on our tree, writing one thing we are thankful for on the paper leaf. We ususally do this at meal times and keep the tree on or near the table.

  10. Lydia on November 16, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    I have an old one and new one. My favorite tradition when I was growing up was going to my grandparents farm and playing around while my dad, uncles, and grandfather made homemade budoin and sausage. Very fun and smelled fantastic. The farm and grandparents have passed. Now that I have my own family, my favorite tradition is after the big meal when my sons and their dad and uncles go into the cul-de-sac to play football and frisbee at their grandparents house. It’s fun to watch their competitive spirit get challenged by the men in our family.

  11. Andie on November 18, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    At the Thanksgiving meal, after the dinner but before the dessert (gives time for things to settle before the pie!) we go around a table that has 20 or more people and name something specific we are thankful for from the past year. This is often enlightening; I look forward to hearing my own children’s responses and often leads to further conversation with aunts and uncles. The heart of our Thanksgiving!

  12. Michelle L on November 22, 2011 at 11:46 am

    Growing up as a pastor’s daughter, my favorite Thanksgiving tradition was the service on Thanksgiving morning in the little church up on the hill next to our parsonage. We sang all the sweet old hymns in the Thanksgiving section of our hymnbook, and spent most of the service taking turns witnessing to God’s blessings in the year past. It always put a special glow on the feast that followed.

  13. Countdown to IDK: Blurbalicious | on June 26, 2015 at 5:20 am

    […] Like Cheryl Harness, one of my favorite all-time go-to authors for history.  She’s better known as a top illustrator, but underappreciated (I think) for her wordsmithing.  Cheryl Harness Histories, published by National Geographic and terminated too soon, offer young readers a look at some significant human beings in the American past by taking in the whole context of their time.  Myles Standish is one of my favorites, reviewed here. […]

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