- The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America by John Demos
Knopf, 325 pp, $25.00, July 1994, ISBN 0 394 55782 4
The Indians attacked in the dead of winter, before dawn. The first the minister knew of it was the sound of axes breaking open his windows and doors. Moments later, twenty painted savages were in his house. Bound and helpless, he watched them kill his six-year-old son, his new baby of six weeks and his black woman slave.
This, properly discerned, is an incident from the War of the Spanish Succession. The thread of history stretches from Charles II, last of the Spanish Habsburgs: from his dead hands across an ocean, to the bound hands of John Williams, a minister of religion in Deerfield, a small settlement in New England. Europe’s conflicts are echoed and mimicked in this precarious, snow-bound frontier territory. The winter of 1703 to 1704 had been a season of ugly rumour, of a defensive huddle in the stockade, of a phoney war. And in the small hours of 29 February, the French and their ‘mission Indian’ allies descend. They kill, they slaughter the livestock, they fire the houses. Then they round up their prisoners – it is the Indians who do this work, not the French – and march them out into the freezing wilderness.
‘Most of all, I wanted to write a story,’ John Demos says. It was the stories that first drew him to the study of history, when he was a child. The tide of the times ran against narrative, and he became a pre-eminent analyst, interpreter. His earlier book A Little Commonwealth is a study of Plymouth colony in the first two generations after the Mayflower settlers. It gives a vivid picture of an emerging society, and of the kind of habits, assumptions and ideals from which John Williams and his surviving family were so brutally torn.
In that book Demos was careful not to focus on individuals; he wanted to improve on the anecdotal method. He made an aggregation of the settlers’ lives, for the sake of a wide and general picture which is not distorted by the idiosyncrasies of personal predilection and personal fate. This is valuable work, and his book is a swift, informative read. He is not some sultan of statistics, conferring the largesse of knowledge only in tables at the back of the book. But it is easy to see why the generalising method seems deficient to a man of imagination. What is true of everybody is true of nobody.
‘Biography, psychology, sociology, history,’ he has written: ‘four corners of one scholar’s compass, four viewpoints overlooking a single field of past experience.’ This compass guided him through Entertaining Satan, his 1982 study of witchcraft in New England. Once you have decided on such a multi-disciplinary approach, where do you stop? How wide do you open your arms? One could argue his study would be more informed, complete, if he had read the relevant papers on Hunting-don’s Chorea, the dreadful inherited disorder traceable in the families of some pre-eminent New England ‘witches’. So, to psychology, one should add neurology. If you opt to be eclectic, there is no limit to scholarship, no end to your book. Yet you know you are working closer to some sort of truth ... One might argue that in his new book Demos has done the risky, the necessary thing. He has embraced imagination, and yielded – in a controlled and chary way – to its delights. So he has written certain interposed passages of reconstruction, of supposition, of – let us spit the word out – fiction. Like Simon Schama he is dealing in ‘dead certainties’ and ‘unwarranted speculations’. But within the text the line is clearly drawn. The critic cannot claim to be confused.