Our European founders have been mythologized for centuries, even though authors as early as Nathaniel Hawthorne have turned a critical eye on the Puritans. In elementary school, I was taught that the Puritans were brave, Christian people who just wanted to practice their own religion. I was even taught whitewashed myths about their interactions with the indigenous peoples of the Atlantic coast. Beheld, by TaraShea Nesbit, is one of the most recent books that explodes the traditional story of the pious, upright Puritans. This novel is based on the few known facts about the first murder in the American colonies, which Nesbit turns into a deep exploration of hypocrisy.
Three people tell the story of that first murder and life in the colony nine years after its founding. Alice Bradford, the second wife of the colony governor at the time, and Eleanor Billington, tell their stories in retrospect. Their narratives are full of regret. They wish, over and over, that they had done things differently. At the time, they were stuck in their roles as peacemaker (Alice) and co-rebel (Eleanor). John Billington tells the rest. John’s anger at the colony, at Myles Standish, and at William Bradford has been simmering for years. John rails against the lies that the colony’s governors and investors have told to get people to emigrate to New Plymouth and the other colonies in Massachusetts. He’s also still angry about his treatment as an indentured servant at the hands of these so-called godly people.
So, on one side of Beheld, John fulminates. He wants the extra acre of land he believes he’s entitled to and the last straw for him comes when he finds a new colonist chopping down a tree on “his” land. The man tells him that he’s planning on building a house on Billington’s “lost acre.” On the other, Alice Bradford reflects on her own happiness with her husband and her lingering grief for her friend, who was Bradford’s first wife. Moments of hypocrisy pop up throughout the narratives. Standish is a violent man, one who goes looking for fights instead of turning the other cheek. Bradford and the other rulers of the colony show themselves to be much more interested in profits and keeping up appearances than one would expect of people who profess to be humble folk.
I understand some of the buzz around Beheld. Nesbit found an interesting story to tell and she does a very good job at developing her female characters. Nesbit turns these historical figures back into flesh and blood humans who feel rage and doubt, who fret and worry, and who are much less noble than the Puritan legend would have us believe. I have some quibbles about odd word choices in the characters’ dialogue that bothered me. (“Dothn’t”? Really?) I also wish that Nesbit had pumped the brakes on the pacing a little, so that I could have more time to think about what the Billingtons’ story and Alice’s story were trying to say.
Recommend to fans of historical fiction, with some small reservations.