When I read the blurb about this book, my interest was piqued. I live on Cape Cod, in a community with a Wampanoag history and they often fish in the pond behind my home. (Wampanoag means people of the light.)
The setting of the book is Martha’s Vineyard. Reading it, provides us with a snapshot of life in the 1600’s, in the colonies. Settlers were under the influence of religious zealots and faced enormous hardships, in addition to the difficulty of living in Indian territories. Some were eager to accept them and some called them heathen and had no desire to interact with them, more likely they shunned them, ridiculed them and took advantage of them whenever possible, not taking their lack of knowledge of how to do business in civilized society into consideration when deals were made.
Bethia, the heroine of this story, is the narrator of this tale and the language and spoken English of that time, which is used by the author, is music to the ears. The way the sentences are framed is poetic. Expressions no longer used are peppered throughout for authenticity.
Bethia, was a 12 year old, when the book begins. She is more willful and independent than most women of her time and has a sharp wit and eager tongue, both of which are frowned upon as qualities in young ladies of that time, especially in the daughter of a minister. Obedience was demanded, and women were totally subservient to men; it was not thought proper to educate them since their lot in life was to conform to the wishes of their fathers, brothers, husbands. It was their job to serve them and take care of the home. They were not thought capable of doing much else and it was thought they had no need of learning. They could be sold into indentured servitude and entered into marriage contracts without their consent. Men supposedly knew what was best for them. Punishment for disobeying the men and the religious doctrines was severe and oft times humiliating for women.
While enjoying some time alone, which was frowned upon by some, but sought after by Bethia, she, in a subtle, but perhaps underhanded way, meets a young Wampanoag Indian boy, Caleb, and from there the story takes flight. It is a story of a deep love and friendship that developed between them. It is the story of her minister father’s efforts to educate the Indians and convert them, as well, to Christian ways, away from what was considered the savage way in which they lived. It is the story of her rather austere brother’s effort to please their father and then assume the mantle of master when the need arose. It is a story about sincere sacrifice and the exigencies of life in those days without any of the modern conveniences we have all grown so used to today. It is the story about position in life.
Forces outside her control, shaped Bethia’s life. When tragedy struck, she always did what she believed was G-d’s will, what G-d would have wanted her to do. She was never able to truly do what she wished. Her lot was to live and toil in order to provide for others.
The novel explores the religious zealotry of that time and exposes its brutality and bigotry. It also sheds light on a chapter of history in which some actually did try to uplift and educate those less fortunate, without taking advantage of them. There is no denying, though, that the American Indians were driven out of their lands and mistreated, and there are few pure Indians surviving today.
The author has beautifully crafted a tale in which one sees the abuse and also the kindnesses proffered by some of the settlers. It illuminates the idea that perhaps, a combination of ideas, rather than the extremes of one or another, is the best right way to learn and worship, to live and prosper.