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Review: Flight of the Sparrow: A Novel of Early America, by Amy Belding Brown
NAL, 2014. 331 pp. $15

Flight of the Sparrow depicts the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the mid-1670s and the bloody struggle between colonists and Native Americans known as King Philip’s War. The premise supposes that Indians raiding a Massachusetts settlement kill the men and a few women and children, while taking the rest captive, among them Mary Rawlandson, a minister’s wife. For Mary, as for the other captives, shock follows shock–the murders, separation from loved ones, enslavement, near-starvation after a life of relative plenty, the constant threat of death.

The Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1629 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

The Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1629 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain in the U.S.)

But Mary’s captivity involves much more than trauma, which is why Flight of the Sparrow is a fascinating book. Her church teaching has reinforced the common assumption among the English colonists that the devil drives Native American life, and that heathen depravity makes Indians less than human. No surprise there, but what Brown does with that gives rich thematic scope to her narrative. Mary learns that many aspects of native life compare favorably with her own, including kind playfulness toward children, the willingness to share, greater respect for women, and, perhaps most of all, the expression of deep, unconstrained feeling.

Though Mary dreams of returning to colonial society and her husband, Joseph–whose absence the day of the raid saved his life–she begins to rethink who she is and what she wants, questions she’s never asked herself. She’s a captive, yet her definition of freedom (and relationship with God) will never be the same. You sense that she’ll somehow resume her former life, and you want to know how she’ll deal with that, or how the other colonists will view her.

To her credit, Brown airbrushes nothing, seeking neither to excuse nor obscure the gruesome violence Mary witnesses, nor to patronize the Native Americans as noble savages. It’s a generally sympathetic portrait, but a mixed one, and I believe it, as I do her portrayal of colonial ways. I knew very little of this subject, so I was pleased to read her thoughtful, thought-provoking narrative. For theme and scope, Flight of the Sparrow deserves an audience.

But in other ways, this is an artless, frustrating novel. Mary’s the only character of any depth. Her husband’s fire-and-brimstone persona wears thin after a while, because you can’t tell what sin and salvation actually mean to him, or why he has his particular take. To say that he’s a Calvinist preacher or a man of his time and place gives Brown leeway at first, but sooner or later, she has to show us more to keep him a plausible character with more than one dimension. There are hints, here and there, of vanities, desires, and weaknesses, but I wish she’d explored them. It would have made him more sympathetic, and a true match for Mary. Likewise, the baptized Indian man, James, who protects Mary as best he can, seems more like a representative than a full person. He’s crucial to the themes, plot, and politics of the narrative, and he reflects her conscience, but I wanted more.

The writing also bothers me, especially the emotional transitions. Instead of using metaphor, memory, or sensory clues to show what Mary feels, Brown offers summaries, full of rhetorical questions and bald statements. “She begins to accept the fact that he [Joseph] will not come for her and her affection for him shrivels.” This is a key moment, surely worth exploration. Another is the night Mary approaches James’s tent, an action that should feel as if all the devils in hell are leering at her, even as her desperation to understand what only James can tell her drives her toward him. But Brown describes the action, so that the passage reminds me of an emotional synopsis, what she might have written in planning the chapter. In certain similar moments, you can even imagine the bullet points, as with, “She becomes abruptly aware of how her clothes restrict her and promote her submission.”

I don’t mean to pick on Brown or hold her up to ridicule. I think she’s an astute writer who’s told a story of psychological complexity; I only wish she’d carried it through. And I bring this up because I’m trying to figure out whether my insistence means I’m chasing rare air in the literary atmosphere. Reading The Flight of the Sparrow makes me wonder about other books in which the authors tell too much, and whether most readers prefer that.

What do you think?

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.