February 2, 2010


The True Story of the Captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson Among the Indians and God’s Faithfulness to her in her Time of Trial

By Mary Rowlandson
64 pages, CreateSpace

Review by Kate Kasserman

The Captive is a memoir of Mary Rowlandson’s 1675 capture and enslavement by the Wampanoag alliance, and it made a big splash back in the seventeenth century upon its debut. Not only was it the first full-length (by the standards of the time, to wit, a pamphlet) literary work by an American woman, but it had NEWS FROM THE OTHER SIDE: the Native Americans. It would be fair to say that early American colonists were more than moderately concerned about their neighbors.

That window into the now-destroyed Wampanoag culture is just as fascinating today, as is the glimpse into Rowlandson’s Puritan mindset. She is both matter-of-fact and, heh, a little intense, a mixture of admirable and poignant and freak-me-out-y to the modern eye.

Rowlandson was about forty (they were SO not into specific dates and ages back then – but she was properly middle-aged heading on old per 1675) and living in Lancaster, Massachusetts with her reverend husband and some random number of surviving children (at least three, because that many were captured with her) when King Philip’s War busted out and all hell broke loose. (King Philip was a Wampanoag leader with a chip on his shoulder – and we learn a bit about that, tangentially, through Rowlandson’s narrative, as she describes the effects – she’s living with them – of the white settlers’ efforts to starve the local Natives out.) The Reverend Rowlandson was off trying to get the rest of Massachusetts to raise an army to fight off King Philip when the Wampanoag alliance attacked Lancaster and turned it into a smoking pit. Mrs. Rowlandson and her youngest were wounded by a gunshot and taken prisoner. She didn’t know what happened to most of the other people in her family, including two other children who surface later, other than the relatives she saw killed on the spot.

Then she was bundled up and taken on the run with the retreating Native forces. The colonial army, perpetually a day late and a dollar short, was nevertheless on the move and pursued them briefly…until it came to a river. Rivers are cold and wet! So the colonials gave up, for all that the Natives were in visual range (Rowlandson could certainly see the colonials) and had just hurriedly crossed the river themselves, and were in disarray. So much for le rescue. Onwards to slavery.

We see a mix of good and bad among the Wampanoag from the outset, and to Rowlandson’s credit – and believe you me, she does not like the Natives one teensy bit and considers them monsters – she relates both with an even hand. Her wounded child is permitted to ride on one of the horses – but at the same time, Natives seem to take a particular delight in coming to Rowlandson and informing her that once she’s sold into slavery, her new master isn’t going to put up with a damaged child and will promptly have “it” killed (Rowlandson herself refers to the poor girl as “it” frequently, and for understandable cause – the girl dies of her wounds, before her future master has the opportunity to off the child).

Life as a slave, in Rowlandson’s experience, was a hit-or-miss affair that depended, logically enough, upon the disposition of the wife of the household. Her master had a couple wives, and Rowlandson got stuck with one who liked to put on airs, with the general dismal personality to match. Mrs. Master (we don’t get names here) apparently did not see fit to feed Rowlandson routinely, nor to give her a place to sleep, leaving Rowlandson to beg scraps from other Natives – most of whom were generous, if unpredictable, with the tiny, tiny gleanings available to them. Those gleanings really are a sorry affair. The colonists’ starve-em-out policy seems to have been a smash hit. We’re talking boiled horse hoof, on a good day. Rowlandson also hires out her services as a seamstress and sometimes gets food or trade goods through that expedient, although again, she is a slave, and so sometimes the whole transaction comes down to “give up your apron and make some baby caps out of it, or I will knock your face in.” She yields; and she even goes out of her way to try to curry favor with her master (and particularly that snot-bitch mistress).

A Native kindly offers Rowlandson a Bible he plundered from one of the other towns the Wampanoag alliance pillaged, and she refers to it frequently. You’d think she’d have had the whole thing more or less memorized, but maybe not – she reads stretches of it for peace, and under particular duress she’ll flip open to a random page hoping for one of the “God loves you” remarks. If she gets one of those, she takes it as a miracle and is happy for days; if she does not, she simply muddles on anyway.

What is particularly fascinating is her lack of sense of entitlement on any particular tactical front (“tactical” is an important distinction – because of course she has no sense of any acceptable outcome, long-term, other than the whites defeating the Natives). As far as she’s concerned, if she’s suffering, God thinks she deserves it, and she’s not going to quibble, complain, or resent. She’ll just get on with it and try to be better. An amazing section has Rowlandson going through how the colonial army’s PATHETIC (she doesn’t say pathetic – that’s me talking) giving up at the river and the Native’s remarkable ability to find food despite the white starvation policy are signs of God’s greatness and benevolence. Wait – Mary? – are you suddenly saying that you’re on the Natives’ side? MAIS NON!!! It is part of God’s greatness and benevolence to STRENGTHEN A SCOURGE for the white settlers, who need to be CHASTISED for – well, she’s not sure what exactly, but something no doubt, and that’s God’s business, not hers. Whoa!

Rowlandson is bought back by her family at length (while the Rowlandsons’ personal assets were annihilated upon the destruction of Lancaster, other settlers pitch in to make up the twenty pounds), as is one of her captured children; the other escapes, as King Philip’s War fizzles out. Her successful return, even before the publication of her pamphlet, made her a minor celebrity, and we get a small sample of seventeenth-century colonial stardom in that Rowlandson makes several dear new friends and also apparently suffers some knify-tongued gossip about her assertion that the Natives did not try to do anything sexual to her. DUDES, aside from the fact that most of the Natives treated her within adequate bounds of respect anyway, they were STARVING (not a general libido-enhancer), and Rowlandson’s age made her pretty much a CRONE. Get over the sex thing, Puritans! (I doubt it, but I can always suggest.)

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