Perhaps my being English distorts my reading here, but I see something else at the novel’s core, a critique of Englishness itself. There is a contradiction underpinning the whole project of English imperialism, and Nesbit flags it perfectly. On the one hand, the English pilgrims regard themselves as epitomizing civility, manners and thus superiority. On the other hand, they deploy barbaric cruelty in order to defend that superiority. For all the novel’s quietness of telling, its currency is the human capacity for cruelty and subjugation, of pretty much everyone by pretty much everyone — of the Puritans toward the Anglicans, of the men toward the women, of the women toward one another, of the colonists toward the Indigenous Wampanoag Indians, of the Indians toward some of the poorest landless pilgrims, of the powerful, always, toward the powerless. The subjugation is opportunistic. If, for the first time in your life, somebody appears to be below you in the pecking order, make hay: Peck them all you will. You might never get the chance again.
The depiction of cruelty is all the more nuanced for being told through the prism of the female characters. They are not weak, but they are powerless, ruled by men and God. In one section, striking for the coolness of Alice’s narration, an Indian sachem is beheaded and his head set on a spike above the colony’s meetinghouse, as an ensign of power and violent intent. Alice is “joyful” to see it. Where she does perceive wrongdoing it’s with a resigned helplessness: “One boy who would not cease to go away was hanged. But a boy hanged is not a thing to speak pridefully of so that part of the event was not much spoketh.” “‘God tests” is Alice’s repeated affirmation. Whenever something fails to fit her worldview: “God tests.”
It’s here, in the narration, that the novel finds itself — in the equable plainness of its language, a plainness that is nevertheless impressionistic and light-filled. There are some bright, startled moments in which Nesbit makes something utterly recognizable and mundane, yet also utterly other: “The town walls were weedy with elder and yew. Nature asserts where man no longer claims it. On a hill, under the castle keep, a butcher chased after a pig. Another man with a bloody apron ran his hand along a cow’s spine.”
Later, there is a break in the novel’s rhythm with a short chapter called “Meanwhile,” a glancing description of the rape of a 13-year-old girl. “Who is this woman?” Nesbit asks with quiet anger. “Any woman. Meanwhile, meanwhile, meanwhile.” And later still a short chapter called “Nature,” filled with simply glorious prose: “In summer, all that is green hushes that which is not. Sassafras bend their necks in the wind. A box turtle hatchling takes her first stride.”
The novel is most successful where it allows itself to stray from historical fact and plot — to invent and to play with language, to give itself imaginative time and space. Nesbit is brilliant in those moments, and captures a paradox of historical writing — that it’s in the invention and improvisation that the past feels most pressing and most real.