One-Minute Book Reviews

May 13, 2009

The True Story of a Girl Captured by Mohawks in 1704 During the Slaughter of Colonists in Deerfield in 1704 – John Demos’s ‘The Unredeemed Captive’

Why did young Eunice Williams stay with Indians who had murdered her mother?

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America. By John Demos. Vintage 336 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1704 a French and Indian war party slaughtered dozens of men, women, and children in a predawn attack on Deerfield, Massachusetts. Recent histories have sanitized the incident known as the Deerfield Massacre, calling it “the Raid on Deerfield.”

The term “raid” hardly fits the events described in this memorable true story of Eunice Williams, who lived through the terror that was masterminded by the French but largely carried out by Mohawks and other Indians. Eunice was a 7-year-old Puritan minister’s daughter when she was kidnapped in the attack – oops, sorry, “raid”! – on Deerfield at about 4 a.m. on February 29. Her mother died on a subsequent forced march to Canada, killed by an Indian who “slew her with his hatchet at one stroke,” a son wrote. Her father and siblings were eventually released.

But Eunice stayed with the Indians, one of whom she married, for puzzling reasons: Was she a prisoner or a willing expatriate? The Yale University historian John Demos explores the question in this fascinating finalist for 1994 National Book Award (inexplicably described on the cover as the winner of the prize).

Enough gaps remain in the record that Demos has to tease out answers, partly by exploring relations between the English, French, and Indians in 18th-century America. (“Some things we have to imagine.”) So The Unredeemed Captive isn’t a Jon Krakauer tale with muskets. But its story matters for more than its complex portrayal of colonial life. Demos doesn’t take the fashionable path of romanticizing American Indians, but he doesn’t spare the Puritans, either. He notes that in our era, “fundamentalism” has become a shorthand term for “radical Islamists, evangelical Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews, militant Hindus” and others. “By the same token,” he writes, “it’s not a long stretch to characterize the early Puritans, surrounding and including the Williams family, as ‘fundamentalists’ themselves; witness their sense of utter certainty in what they were about, their intolerance of difference and dissent, their zeal for conversion of infidel natives, and their readiness to fight, die, and kill in the cause of advancing their faith.”

Best line: “Who can tell what sorrows pierced our souls?,” a rhetorical question asked by
Rev. John Williams after the massacre.

Worst line: Demos tells much of Eunice’s story in the present tense, which works less well than the past tense he uses to give it context.

Recommendation? An excellent choice for history books clubs and others that like serious nonfiction.

Editor: Ashbel Green

Published: 1994 (Knopf hardcover), 1995 (Vintage paperback).

Read John Demos’s summary of the Deerfield Massacre in American Heritage. Several Deerfield museums have an excellent interactive Web site that shows a representation of the attack and tells more about the people mentioned in this review.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
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