1630, awkward storytelling, book review, colonial bigotry, feminism, flat male characters, fundamentalism, historical fiction, Massachusetts, murder, myths debunked, Plymouth Colony, religious intolerance, strong women, TaraShea Nesbit, Wampanoag, women's history
Review: Beheld, by TaraShea Nesbit
Bloomsbury, 2020. 272 pp. $26
In August 1630, as the ten-year-old Plymouth Colony awaits a ship from England bearing more colonists, rivalries and resentments divide the settlement. Alice Bradford, the governor’s wife, who sets the scene and narrates much of the novel, ascribes the tension largely to indentured servants who accompanied the pilgrims but don’t follow God’s ways. That summer witnesses the settlement’s first murder and increasing encroachments on indigenous lives and property. Mistress Bradford’s conscience stirs at how the colonists, led by the soldier Myles Standish, have so quickly forgotten how the Wampanoags saved them from starvation through kindness and generosity.
Nesbit performs a great service in her tale of appalling hypocrisy, brutality, and greed. Her historical background seems authoritative, and I’m glad to see she’s countered a few myths traditionally spoon-fed in American schools. For instance, the pilgrims weren’t all fleeing religious oppression; many sailed from Holland originally, where they’d found tolerance. Rather, they feared intermarriage with the Dutch, whom they despised, and sought economic opportunity in the New World.
Further, they meant to land in Virginia, of which they had heard favorable reports as to the climate and soil, and which put them further away from the Dutch in New Amsterdam. But the captain of the Mayflower, perhaps because the storm-filled, illness-ridden crossing had taken such a toll, held to a more northern course. From that decision arose New England.
Nesbit performs one other service: She focuses on the women of Plymouth, who have been largely lost to history. Alice comes across especially well, the good wife who sees and understands far more than she can say, who believes implicitly that her husband should rule her as he governs the colony, and who suffers mightily for all that. The novel also pays due homage to the back-breaking work she and other women perform to keep the settlement afloat, about which the historical record is equally mute.
I admire how Alice holds fast to an outlook that her sharp perceptions do nothing to shake, though she herself trembles a little. Also fine is Eleanor Billington, wife to John, both former indentured servants and therefore outliers. Eleanor sees the Puritans for who they are and tries to keep her bad-tempered husband from running afoul of them. Like Alice, she’s trapped: The Billingtons lack the resources to move, and even if they pulled up stakes, they’d lose years’ worth of labor and the land they scrimped to buy.
Alice’s voice is vivid and accurate without adornment, what you’d expect from her, as with her description of the new colonists emerging from the ship:
The first heads to pop up from the tween deck were small black-capped men. Then came three heifers and a bull and behind them, more men, half a dozen women, and with them a handful of children. There they were, four dozen or so, sickly and sea-legged. Their pale English bodies, weakened by the journey, as if ghosts, crossing over. One by one, the women’s bare ankles and leather shoes dipped in the surfaces of the sea. I knew their look well — their hopeful and fearful imaginations of the present situation.
Nevertheless, despite a terrific premise, worthy themes and historical perspective, and excellent female characters, Beheld disappoints me as a novel. Much as I’m glad to feed my contrarian soul against the lies my teachers told me, and though the portrayal of fundamentalists so willing to oppress others feels relevant today, Beheld wants more nuance and more coherent storytelling.
Bradford, though a forceful governor, has no redeeming features as a man except that he’s good in bed — surprise! — or as good as any seventeenth-century Englishwoman has the right to expect. Standish, known as Shrimp because of the short stature of which he’s ashamed, is highly disagreeable, vicious, and treacherous. The murder, announced in the second paragraph, is fairly predictable, and the narrative keeps referring to it before it happens, as if the author (or her agent or editor) feared nobody would keep turning the pages without reminders of Something Really Important. I’ve never liked that authorial technique, which has the opposite effect to what’s intended and makes me think that the novel begins in the wrong place.
The blink-of-an-eye chapters interrupt the flow rather than propel it. Some, from an omniscient narrator called Nature, though prettily written, feel dropped in. All that, and the layout, including unnecessary breaks for different “parts,” gives the impression that the publisher worries that the book looks shrimpy. I don’t see why length matters, but I did want longer scenes and fuller development, especially of storylines and the male characters.
So with Beheld, you get an arresting, unusual narrative inherently noteworthy because of our national myths, yet which feels as if it has holes. I wonder whether Nesbit, with her solid command of the subject, could have filled a few in.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.