A Conversation with Amy Belding Brown
Q. Can you explain what originally inspired you to choose Mary Rowlandson as the subject of your second novel? Originally you wanted to call it Redemption. Why?
A. I wanted to write something set in the Puritan era in New England, partly so I could learn more about it myself. I became aware when I wrote my last novel about the New England Transcendentalists that they were reacting to the Puritan culture, which had dominated the area for nearly two hundred years. But, like most Americans, I didn’t know much about that time besides the Mayflower Pilgrims and the Salem witchcraft trials.
I first stumbled on Mary Rowlandson’s narrative in a museum gift shop when I was doing research on Mr. Emerson’s Wife. When it came time to start a new novel, I turned to Mary’s story. As I researched the novel, I kept encountering references to “Praying Indians.” This prompted me to investigate John Eliot and the fourteen villages of Nipmuc converts he set up in the second half of the seventeenth century. At the time, I was living in Grafton, Massachusetts, which was the site of Hassanamesit, one of those “Praying Towns.” When I first moved to Grafton, I noticed a sign on the town common that mentioned James Printer and he struck me as an interesting person.
When I started to dig into the history and learn about the Praying Towns and the Natives who lived in them, I was fascinated. I began to understand what a remarkable man James Printer was. Then I read a reference to him in Mary Rowlandson’s narrative and knew I had to include him in the book. He became one of my favorite characters, and central to the story I wanted to tell.
My working title—Redemption—related to the novel on several levels: the Puritan religious theme, Mary’s reentry into English life, the unfulfilled promise of restoration for Nipmuc peoples, and the impact that simple acts of kindness can have on a fellow human being. Also in my mind was Redemption Rock, the name of the historical site in Princeton, Massachusetts, where Mary was ransomed.
Q. What do you most hope readers will take away from reading Flight of the Sparrow?
A. I hope readers will come away with a sense of what it was like to live in Puritan culture and society, an appreciation of the importance and terrible cost of King Philip’s War, and an awareness of the complexity of English-Native relationships in the 1600s.
Q. Does Mary’s original narrative still exist, and did you consult it as part of your research? Can you give us a sense of her language? Do we know which words are hers and which were altered by Increase Mather?
A. Mary’s original narrative is in the public domain and available in many print and electronic versions. I consulted it many times throughout the research and writing of Flight of the Sparrow. I found Neal Salisbury’s edition especially useful because of its informative introduction and additional documents that provide invaluable context to her experience.
Mary’s language is typical of seventeenth century Puritan writing, so it takes some getting used to, not only because of when it was written, but also because her narrative is so full of Biblical references and authorial asides. The more times I read the book the more I saw three separate layers that I could pry apart fairly easily. The first is the straight story of her experience, which moves quickly from one event to the next. The second is a layer of cultural platitudes and moralistic conclusions that, interestingly,don’t always match the story itself. Third is a layer of Biblical quotations and references, likening Mary’s experience to the trials of the ancient Israelites.
Most scholars agree that the preface was written by Increase Mather. But there’s no way to know for sure if Mary’s original text was altered, though many believe that it was at least “influenced” by someone other than Mary herself.
One problem I ran into as I read and reread Mary’s narrative was that many of her views offended me. While she points out that the Indians were unexpectedly generous with their food and sometimes even kind to her, much of her commentary is disparaging, judgmental, and even vicious. Overall, she comes across as a pious Puritan woman with a narrow and bigoted point of view. I didn’t like her until I read some scholarly articles that suggested the book may not have been entirely of Mary’s making. They pointed out that she likely wrote it under the guidance of clergy—either her husband and/or Increase Mather—and that it would not have been published if it hadn’t conformed to Puritan thinking. I took that possibility and enlarged it until I found a woman I could relate to.
Q. You present Mary as a woman who is profoundly changed by the three months she spends with the Native Americans who take her as a captive. Were you guided by historical clues, or purely by your imagination? Was it part of your intention all along to show a woman who comes to question the accepted practices of her own society?
A. Mary’s changed viewpoint as I’ve presented it in the novel is fiction. There’s no evidence that her opinion on Native Americans (or slavery for that matter) was any different from the majority of other seventeenth-century Puritans.
Although there are no historical facts suggesting that Mary wished to stay with the Indians, I knew from other reading that it was not uncommon for captured English colonists to stay with the Indians when they had a choice. During her captivity, Mary demonstrated an entrepreneurial, survivalist mentality that was outside the norm. Pious Puritan women were supposed to submissively resign themselves to their fates, assuming that whatever happened was God’s will. Mary seems to have had more spunk than she or others expected, a quality that was not considered appealing or appropriate in a woman at that time.
Near the end of her narrative, Mary does make a few references to hurtful rumors and nightly crying bouts. It struck me that she was treated as if she had been “tainted” by her captivity. Whether she said anything to trigger the rumors, I don’t know. But I think it’s at least possible that, witnessing what she did during her captivity, she might have questioned some of the fundamental assumptions of Puritan culture. However, she would never have been allowed to express such doubts in her book.
Q. I found Mary’s relationship with James Printer very moving, although sad. The fact that their lives did intersect, and they may have known each other, makes their relationship especially compelling. Did you learn anything about James that did not make its way into the novel? How typical was his experience compared to that of other “Praying Indians”?
A. James Printer was an extraordinary man, known for his great intelligence, ingenuity, and piety. The more I dug into his story, the more interesting and impressive he became. He was apparently comfortable in both the Puritan and Nipmuc cultures—a remarkable accomplishment in itself. He could read and write; he had a formal English education; he lived with the president of Harvard College in his childhood; he helped John Eliot translate the Bible into the Massachusett (Algonquian) language; and he was also a respected leader in his own Hassanamesit community.
When hostilities broke out, James fled his apprenticeship and returned to Hassanamesit. Daniel Gookin later wrote that James did this for “love of his homeland.” He was one of the Hassanamesit Indians taken by Philip’s forces, where he was apparently trusted to inscribe a warning note to the English after a battle and play a part in Mary’s ransom negotiations.
I was struck by the fact that he came in under the postwar amnesty without suffering execution or imprisonment. Many of the Indians who had been less flagrant in their "rebellion” against the English were hanged. I never found a satisfying explanation for how James managed to return to English society.
I think James’s experience was typical of other Praying Indians in that he lost family, friends, and homeland in the war. But thanks to his intelligence and early education, he was able to negotiate the Puritan/Indian collision more successfully than most. I did find some interesting information about James’s family that didn’t make it into the novel. Shortly after the Hassanamesits were captured by Philip’s followers, James’s father, Naoas, his brother Tuckapewillin and his wife, and several children tried to escape and return to the English. Unfortunately, they encountered an English scout who robbed them and imprisoned them in Marlborough. There they were so threatened and abused that Tuckapewillin’s wife, afraid she would be killed, escaped into the forest with three children, leaving behind her nursing baby. Naoas, Tuckapewillin, and the remaining children were sent to Deer Island.
Deer Island was a bleak, windswept island in the middle of Boston Harbor. The living conditions were extremely harsh. About five hundred Natives were interned there without adequate food or clothing. Though they built wetus with the few available materials, the shelters were too insubstantial to adequately protect them. They had no access to their stores of winter provisions, were prohibited from cutting the trees for firewood, and were forced to eat what they could find—mostly clams and other shellfish. Disease and starvation made the death rate soar. Meanwhile, people in the English towns petitioned to have all Christian Indians put to death; others called for their deportation.
Q. I knew so little about English/Native American conflicts in New England before reading this novel. Can you tell us more about King Philip and the war that bears his name? Your description of the Native Americans in defeat is heartbreaking. In your research, did you find any brighter stories to soften that bleak picture?
A. “King Philip” was the English name for the Wampanoag sachem who was the second son of Massasoit, friend to the Pilgrims. Late in his life, Massasoit asked that his sons receive English names from the Court; the oldest (Wamsutta) took the name “Alexander” and the younger (Metacomet) took the name Philip. When Massasoit died, Alexander inherited his title, but within a year he died after testifying in front of an English court and Philip became the tribe’s sachem.
Convinced Alexander had been poisoned, many Wampanoag warriors began to advocate for retaliation. Resentment had been building for some time. One of the chief flash points was the differing Indian and English practices of land use. So tempers were already flaring when John Sassamon, a Praying Indian (and someone James Printer almost certainly knew and worked with), informed the authorities that Philip was preparing to attack the colony. The colonial officials required Philip to face charges. Although the court found no proof of his wrongdoing, they warned him that further rumors—whether or not they were based on fact—would result in the confiscation of all Wampanoag land and guns. Soon after, Sassamon’s body was found under the ice in a nearby pond. The English assumed he was murdered by Philip’s supporters and arrested three Wampanoag men who were tried, convicted, and executed.
In response to the executions, warriors attacked Swansea, killing several people and destroying the town. Colonial forces retaliated by destroying a Wampanoag town. The hostilities quickly expanded, drawing other tribes into a loose confederation, including the Narragansett and Nipmuc. The English colonists found allies in the Pequot and Mohegan tribes, as well as many of the Praying Indians. Meanwhile, the Mohawk tribe, long-standing enemies of the Nipmuc, began to press Philip’s forces from the west.
The war was devastating to both sides; when compared to other American wars on a per capita basis, King Philip’s War is still the bloodiest to this day. More than half the Puritan towns were attacked and twelve were completely destroyed. Over six hundred men, women, and children were killed. The colonial economy verged on collapse. But the Indians fared even worse, losing more than three thousand to war, disease, and starvation. After the war, many were executed or enslaved and sold onto slave ships bound for Bermuda. Others fled north and west to join other tribes. Those that remained were closely controlled; all the surviving Praying Indians were crowded into one Praying Town—Natick—and they lost their self-governing status.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find many heartening stories. The exception is the few English individuals who spoke out against the cruel treatment of Indians and slaves. One of these was John Eliot, who also donated funds to establish and maintain a school that educated African-American and Indian students as well as the children of English colonists.
Q. My first knowledge of Indian captives during this period comes from having read The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter, a classroom standard when I attended public school in New England. There was also a movie, I recall. Were they in the back of your mind when you started this project?
A. It’s been years since I read The Light in the Forest and, though I remember liking it, I didn’t revisit it in writing Flight of the Sparrow. There are many Indian captivity stories in print, both fact and fiction, but Mary Rowlandson’s was the first and happened much earlier than the action of The Light in the Forest. I did reread Black Robe by Brian Moore, which takes place at approximately the same time as Rowlandson’s captivity, but is set in what is now Canada. Some of those images were in my mind, I suppose, but mostly I drew on my reading of Rowlandson’s narrative and the research on New England Natives and colonists in the second half of the seventeenth century.
Q. When the English and Indians were not at war in the early colonial period, what level of interaction existed among them? Was it mostly limited to trade?
A. It was largely trade. Early on, Massasoit’s decision to seek an alliance with thke Plymouth colonists ensured their survival, since he provided them with food and essential knowledge. Not all the English colonies were so fortunate. The English both feared and reviled the tribes round them. Indians reminded them of the Irish, whom they considered barbarians. Like the Irish, Indians lived in small, domed dwellings; they also danced in strange ways and mourned their dead loudly. Indians, whose populations had already been devastated by disease when the colonists began to settle New England, were generally tolerant of colonists as long as they didn’t interfere with their way of life.
Indians traded furs and land for English tools. As the English either bought or took more and more land, there was increasing friction. The English, who believed the land belonged to them because it had been chartered by the King, felt entitled to claim all land that wasn’t being “used,” by which they meant actively farmed. Indians resented having their hunting grounds parceled up into little English farms and the subsequent destruction of their crops by English animals.
Q. Despite the prejudice and self-righteousness of many Puritans, there were clearly some men such as John Eliot who took more enlightened views. Can you talk a little bit about how well freedom of thought and religious diversity were tolerated, and when—as in the case of Anne Hutchinson—they were punished?
A. Massachusetts Bay was a theocracy, especially in its early years during the Great Migration from England. The religious freedom the Puritans sought was self-interested and applied only to them. They saw themselves as refugees from the tyranny of English religious laws. As I understand it, the English were relieved to be rid of them because the Puritans were seen as religious zealots and troublemakers. Most of the laws they set up in Massachusetts were attempts to codify Old Testament commandments.
Though it’s sometimes thought that the clergy were in charge, in fact the Puritans established their government on the assumption that everyone was a deeply pious Christian trying to live according to Biblical ideals. Their “mutual watch” system requiring every church member to keep an eye on every other member was one mechanism of enforcement. Interestingly, this was not to ensure the personal salvation of each individual. As Calvinists, they believed that everyone’s salvation had already been determined by God before birth. Their fundamental concern was the behavior of the group; they believed that one person’s bad behavior could jeopardize the safety and success of the whole community. They took as their prototype the ancient Israelites, whose “angry God” punished His people when they were disobedient, sometimes wiping out entire villages.
On the other hand, the New England Puritans were in some ways progressive (for their time). They prohibited wife beating and child abuse. They required parents to teach their children to read. They didn’t condemn “heretics” to death. Instead they banished them from the colony—as in the cases of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams—and usually only after repeated offenses. Hutchinson and Williams were part of the first generation, living in a time when the colony was still struggling for survival and was fixated on religious “purity.” After the second generation, differences of opinion were more common, and more generally tolerated.
Laws of that time included specific regulations on everything from spinning, galloping horses on Boston Common, to the wearing of lace and silk, fences, marriage, and profaning the Sabbath. Most of the punishments involved fines, though repeated offenses could result in imprisonment or whipping.
The Puritans tried to establish a perfect Christian colony, leaning on the letter rather than the spirit of the law to accomplish their goal. Their laws and punishments grew out of a belief that the bad behavior of one person was a threat to the entire colony. In their view, it was less punishment than self-preservation.
Q. We often forget that slavery was deeply embedded in early colonial society, and that well-respected men actively participated in the slave trade by selling Africans and Native Americans to sugar planters in the Caribbean. Can you explain how slavery contributed to New England’s growth and wealth, both among the English and the various Indian tribes?
A. One of the things that surprised me when I researched Flight of the Sparrow was that I kept bumping into matter-of-fact references to slaves, both Indian and African. It was just an accepted part of life in the 1600s. There were both African and Indian slaves serving in families, but the colonial economy in New England wasn’t dependent on slave labor as it was in the South. The slave trade, however, was an economic gold mine. Not long after the Puritans settled in New England they began importing slaves from Africa, shipping them to the West Indies, selling them there and buying sugar for rum-making. The slave trade made some businessmen and investors very rich and created jobs for thousands of others in the trade itself and in the industries dependent on it.
Q. This is your second novel, following Mr. Emerson’s Wife (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005), which was also set in Massachusetts, a century and a half after Flight of the Sparrow. What keeps drawing you back to New England history?
A. It’s partly provincialism on my part, I guess; I grew up in New England and have spent most of my life living here. My forebearers were part of the Great Puritan Migration. The landscape itself speaks to me in a profound way. I was raised on New England stories and the ideas of New England people. I feel my background allows me to understand regional history from the inside out. And there’s certainly plenty of material to inspire me.
Q. What were your beginnings as a writer, and what do you most enjoy about writing?
A. I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. My parents always read to me and once I could read myself, my nose was always in a book. I think, like many writers, my desire to be a writer grew out of my love for the books I read. When a book moved me or made me think in a new way, I found myself wanting to have that impact on others. I remember, at a very young age, loving to hear Margaret Wise Brown’s books because of the way she used words and the enchanting pictures those words painted in my mind. It was a special joy to revisit her when I read to my own children.
I like to write poetry because it allows me to play with words in that way, but I’ve always been especially drawn to stories. My father used to tell wonderful, imaginative stories that he made up on the spur of the moment, and that model of creative magic also had a powerful impact on me.
What I enjoy most about writing is discovering something unexpected. I write the way I read—to find out what happens next. My writing process is pretty messy; I don’t usually know where I’m going and it takes longer than I’d like to get there, but the payoff is encountering the unexpected—a new character, a plot twist, something I didn’t know in a character’s background, etc. Writing historical novels gives me a little less imaginative leeway, since I try not to contradict anything that’s historically documented, but the research process makes up for it. I love delving deep into historical books and articles and coming up with intriguing details.
Q. What do you read for pleasure? Have you been particularly inspired or influenced by the work of other writers?
A. An early influence was Louisa May Alcott, whose Jo March was the model for many women writers in my generation. When I was in my teens, I loved Ernest Hemingway. I even copied out a quote of his in calligraphy, framed it, and hung it on my wall: “Once writing has become your major vice and only pleasure only death can stop it.” It’s pretty extreme, but for quite a while it was my credo.
I’m an eclectic reader; I don’t limit myself to one genre. I read a lot of literary and mainstream fiction; I read history and biography and memoir, poetry and classical literature, and occasionally some reader-friendly science. I have a fairly long list of favorite writers, including Anne Patchett, Marilynne Robinson, Barbara Kingsolver, Hilary Mantel, Richard Russo, Nathaniel Philbrick, Geraldine Brooks, Mary Oliver, Frederick Buechner, and, of course, Jane Austen. But I also really love reading a fantastic book by a writer I’ve never heard of before.
Q. What might we expect from you in the future?
A. I’m currently working on a novel about Emily Dickinson. Or, rather, about Emily Dickinson’s circle. It’s in the early stages, but I’m really excited about it. Dickinson is interesting in her own right, as a sort of literary mystery, but many of the people around her lived dramatic and captivating lives. Also, Dickinson lived in an interesting time when the nation was going through incredible changes, a time period that overlapped the Transcendentalists. In fact, I recently learned that Dickinson was a big fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had a major influence on her view of the world.
1. What was your overall response to the novel? What did you feel? What did you learn?
2. Discuss Mary Rowlandson’s relationships with the three men in her life—Joseph, James, and Samuel. What does she give and what does she receive from each relationship?
3. Mary Rowlandson lives in a society ruled by men in which women were allowed few of the freedoms that we take for granted today. Identify those constraints, discuss how they might have helped or hurt the Bay Colony’s survival, and discuss how women might have found meaning in life despite them.
4. As an Indian captive, Mary feels freed from the constraint of “mutual watch,” the “relentless scrutiny of each other’s conduct required of all church members.” Discuss the idea of mutual watch as it plays out in the novel, and what it might be like to live under such a system. Can you think of any modern-day equivalents?
5. Mary experiences both cruelty and kindness at the hands of her Indian captors. Compare their behavior toward her to the cruelty and kindness shown her by her husband, Joseph, and other members of English society.
6. Discuss the various forms that freedom and imprisonment take in the novel. What role does the sparrowplay in the author’s exploration of those ideas?
7. While living with the Indians Mary begins to find beauty, peace, and sacred mystery in the wilderness. How does she initially view the natural world and what inspires this change? Compare her experience of the natural world to your own.
8. Mary becomes convinced that slavery and physically punishing her children are wrong, and she stands up to her husband Joseph on these issues. What makes her so sure she is correct to reject them? Is mere conviction enough, or is something else required?
9. James Printer tells Mary, “We have both bought our redemption at a terrible price.” And Mary realizes that she felt redeemed when she followed the promptings of her heart. Discuss the many meanings of redemption in the novel.
10. The Puritan worldview differs markedly from our own. Discuss their beliefs as they relate to God’s love and punishment, child rearing, grief, the infectious nature of sin, slavery, obedience to authority, and salvation. In what ways are these ideas still part of current thought and practice? In what ways have our thinking changed?
11. Because their exposure to another culture has changed their beliefs and perceptions, both Mary and James feel estranged from their original people. Have you ever felt estranged from your own “group of origin”? Care to share your experience?
12. Have you read other “captivity narratives,” either those from previous centuries or those written by recent, contemporary captives (such as Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard)? How do they compare with Mary Rowlandson’s story?
13. What do you most admire about Mary? What makes her story relevant today?
14. What do you hope to remember about this novel six months or a year from now? Do you think that some part of it will remain with you for even longer than that?
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