Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A More Realistic, and Sobering, Look at Thanksgiving

--As we prepare to prepare our Thanksgiving feasts, let us not lose sight of the realistic side of the colonizing of this continent.  If you want to listen to a great historian giving a great interview, head over to this episode of On Point.  Historian Bernard Bailyn talks about the brutal reality of those early settlements.

--He reminds us that half of the people who came over on The Mayflower died in the first year of the settlement.

--If you want to go in depth, you could read his new book, The Barbarous Years.

--The New York Times reviews his book here.  The reviewer Charles C. Mann writes about Jamestown: "The colony was a commercial enterprise, started by the Virginia Company with the sort of careful financial evaluation that in the more recent past was the hallmark of the dot-com boom. Once the colony’s backers discovered that Chesapeake Bay was, contrary to their initial belief, laden with neither gold and silver nor a passage to the Pacific, they tried everything they could think of to salvage their investment. Ship after ship of ill-equipped migrants — many of them abducted, many of them children — went out, each vessel intended to fulfill some new harebrained scheme: winemaking, silk-making, glassmaking. Each and every one failed, as did the Virginia Company, which went bankrupt in 1624. By then three-quarters or more of the Jamestown colonists had died, felled by starvation, disease, murder, wolves, Indian arrows and even cannibalism."

--Mann's discussion of Jamestown reminded me of a nugget of information that I picked up during the celebration of the 500 year mark of the founding of Jamestown.  The English colonies that did the best were the ones that had women settlers--and it was because the women reminded the men of the need to plant food crops along beside the money crops, like tobacco.

--If you're in the mood for fiction,  read A Mercy. Toni Morrison does the best job of depicting the realism of life in the colonies of any writer I've read.  I reviewed it here.

--Here's a quote from that review that seems appropriate for Thanksgiving:  "I also love Morrison's ethics lessons throughout. In many ways, the last sentences of the ending chapter sum it all up nicely: '. . . to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing' (167)."

--Pick up A Mercy.  It's a short book, and you can probably finish it Thanksgiving afternoon.  It will make you profoundly grateful to be alive in this century.  It may make you afraid of the upheaval that could be coming as we adapt to life on a harsher planet with a more uncertain food supply in the coming decades.

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