Thanksgiving Audiobook Review: Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Mayflower”

Thanksgiving Audiobook Review: Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Mayflower”

About the book: Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 history chronicles the Pilgrims’ journey from its genesis in turn-of-the-17th-century Britain through their 1620 arrival at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts; concluding in 1678 with the end of King Philip’s War, a devastating conflict between European settlers and Native Americans. The colony that only survived its first year because of the friendship of the Wampanoag chief Massasoit ends with his son’s head on a stake outside that very colony.

Yep, it’s bleak. As disturbing as the historical evidence of murder and exploitation is, the clear parallels to our own time add to the narrative’s chilling effect. When war breaks out, friendly Indians were shunted into concentration camps, to deadly effect — and yet, it was allied Indians who provided pivotal assistance that helped the English win the war. In the end, Philbrick sadly concludes that what could have developed into a dynamic and constructive partnership between settlers and Natives devolved into an increasingly racialized conflict because white men just couldn’t abide the notion that people of color shouldn’t be categorically subdued. Sound familiar?

About the audiobook: Aside from the material’s unavoidably sobering substance, in audiobook form Philbrick’s opus gets difficult to follow in its second half, with its detailed descriptions of changing alliances among European colonists and native tribes. Gravelly-voiced narrator George Guidall strikes a wry, almost scolding tone, which is only fitting.

What’s for dinner? Don’t lie: this is the part you came for. What was the first Thanksgiving actually like? In contrast to Victorian notions of the triumphant colonists inviting a few representative Natives to share their bounty, Philbrick makes clear that Pokanokets far outnumbered the satisfied but still struggling Pilgrims at that fall 1621 feast, eaten with fingers and knives while squatting around fires.

On the menu: squash, corn, ducks, and geese. Turkey? Possibly, but certainly not predominantly. The main meat consumed at the first Thanksgiving was venison, provided by Massasoit. The British expats wasted no time in turning some of their newly-harvested barley crop into beer, one of the few Pilgrim priorities it’s hard to argue with.

Something to be thankful for: Philbrick points out that the first Thanksgiving also coincided with the Pilgrim’s first experience of New England fall color, far brighter than anything they would have known back home.

The story’s saddest irony is that, beneath all the heavily fictionalized gloss that’s accrued over the centuries, there’s a crucial germ of truth in what we still tell ourselves about the first Thanksgiving. It was indeed a harvest celebration of thanks, trust, and hope. After a bumpy beginning, the Pilgrims had mended fences with the Pokanokets, and if the colony could have moved forward in that spirit of humility and cooperation, American history might have been very different indeed. Reading this account is a timely reminder that there’s still American history ahead of us. Can we ever do better?

Jay Gabler

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture (CC BY 2.0)