Hatrack River
Hatrack.com   The Internet  
Home   |   About Orson Scott Card   |   News & Reviews   |   OSC Library   |   Forums   |   Contact   |   Links
Research Area   |   Writing Lessons   |   Writers Workshops   |   OSC at SVU   |   Calendar   |   Store
Print this page E-mail this page RSS FeedsRSS Feeds
What's New?

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 13, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Water bottles, Mayflower, and Hitler and Stalin

I think it's time we started taking notice of a grave threat to the environment. The consumption of bottled water in this country has grown in the past twenty-five years from less than a million bottles a year to more than a billion per annum.

It is estimated that about one-fifth of these bottles are thrown away with the top screwed tightly down and an average of one ounce of water remaining inside.

Given that these plastic bottles are airtight, nonbiodegradable containers, this means that the water contained inside is withdrawn from the planet's hydrosystem for the next ten million years.

If present trends continue, it is estimated that within the next four hundred thousand years, not only will all the planet's carbon be tied up in the plastic of these discarded water bottles, but also the entirety of the world's oceans will be locked up inside these bottles.

The result is that humans of that future era will spend their lives swimming through an ocean of plastic water bottles, continually opening bottles to scavenge water, one ounce at a time.

There are those who consider this to be a deft water conservation plan, but as everyone knows water, like money, is more useful to us when it is in circulation rather than locked up and hidden away.

Since the timeframe of the emergency is so far removed from the present political cycle, it is unrealistic for us to expect our politicians to take action. But each of us can do our part to prevent this catastrophe by making sure to empty water bottles before discarding them, thus releasing their water into the wild.

Whether you pour out your water bottle over a thirsty plant or simply dump it onto asphalt or concrete, it will eventually evaporate and rejoin the rest of the planet's hydrosystem. Thus you will be helping, an ounce at a time, to stave off global disaster.

And if you make sure to deposit your empty bottles into the recycling system, you will truly have done your part to prevent unthinkable calamity.


With his book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, Nathaniel Philbrick joins the ranks of the great historians.

As sheer entertainment, the story he tells is fascinating -- and so clearly and fluently written that it is painless to read. Yet he weighs the evidence for his story so transparently that he earns our trust in his conclusions, while leaving us room to understand where he might be wrong.

This is what masterful history writing looks like.

The story he tells, however, is not one that we can regard dispassionately or disinterestedly. The Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth Colony, now the southeastern corner of Massachusetts, have been used for different propaganda purposes in every generation since they arrived here.

For a time they are the founders of our tradition of religious freedom; then they are the cruel oppressors of those whose beliefs are not in line with their community.

For a time they are heroic venturers into a new world; then they are the helpless dependents of noble natives, whom they then turn on and destroy.

What a relief it is to have a reliable and remarkably detailed account of what the Pilgrims really were: A mixed colony of religious refugees and land-hungry pioneers, who settled among an equally mixed system of native tribes.

On both sides were acts of generosity and barbarism, of wisdom and foolishness, and in the end the tribe most essential to the survival of the Pilgrims started a brutal war that ended with its own destruction, though with a few different turns of the wheel, the war might have been avoided entirely -- or might have ended very differently for the Europeans in what became British North America.

Pilgrims as Victims

The Pilgrims did not finance their own expedition; already refugees in Leiden, they had the money to buy one small boat, but not to provision and transport an entire colony.

The story of the boat they purchased is typical of their persistence in the face of ill fortune. The Speedwell was intended to cross the Atlantic, but not return permanently to England. Instead, it would be the Pilgrims' means of trading with other colonies and outposts up and down the American coast and, when needed, make trips back to England for resupply.

However, the boat, which had seemed so seaworthy when they paid an enormous portion of their collected money to buy it, proved to be so leaky on the trip from Leiden to Plymouth that the Pilgrims decided not to bring it to America after all.

What Philbrick points out is that the Pilgrims, unaware of how wooden sailing ships worked, recorded without realizing it the fraud that the captain of the vessel perpetrated on them. He put on a new and larger mast before leaving Leiden. The mast is rooted to the keel of the ship and, as the wind pushes on the sails, stresses the wood of the ship right at the bottom.

If the mast is kept in proportion to the ship, all well and good; but if the ship is "overmasted," it torques the wood of the hull so that seams open and water is let in. The ship actually remains quite seaworthy -- all you have to do is change back to a proportionate mast. But the naive Pilgrims did not know how they were being deceived -- so the captain had the Pilgrims' money and his ship, too.

In addition, the financiers who were backing the Pilgrims' expedition were all about money -- they wanted the Pilgrims to send back furs and other trade goods and so drew up first one rapacious contract and then another even more exploitative, so that the Pilgrims would have been required to labor exclusively for the owners until the entire cost of the expedition had been repaid and beyond.

Fortunately, because of chaos among the backers and the hard work of the colonists, a few of the colony's leaders were eventually able to buy back the contract themselves. But as they Pilgrims set out, late in the season, with fewer people, fewer boats, and fewer supplies than they had originally planned, they did so with the real prospect of being virtual bondservants in the new world.

Nevertheless, since their goal was not personal wealth, it was enough for them to imagine a haven in the New World where they could establish a community that lived by the rules they believed God required of them.

Pilgrims as Oppressors

At no time did they have religious tolerance as a goal, not because they wished to impose their faith on others -- they wanted others to adopt their rules only of their own free will -- but because they could not live their law in isolation. They needed a community with shared faith and values. The New World was a large place. They wished only to be left alone.

Thus propagandists like Nathaniel Hawthorne, who despised his Pilgrim ancestors, made a big deal about how oppressive they were toward the anti-Pilgrim establishment near modern Braintree, dubbed "Merrymount" by its founder, Thomas Morton. He deliberately set it up to be the antithesis of the Pilgrims' piety -- he took delight in flaunting his sabbath-breaking, dancing, drinking, gaming, and singing establishment as a place of debauchery (by Pilgrim standards) right under their noses.

On the one hand, one can appreciate Morton's puckish tweaking of Pilgrim asceticism; on the other hand, the Pilgrims had gone to a lot of trouble and risk to get away from the evils of the world, and it was just as intolerant of Morton to insist on setting up so close to them as it was of them to insist that he respect their rules when he wasn't actually a member of their community.

Besides, Morton posed a danger: He sold guns to the Indians. There was bound to be trouble, and suffice it to say that Merrymount did not last.

Pilgrims and Indians

But the heart and soul of this book is about the relations between the Pilgrims and the Indians. It is here that the myth-making has been most intense -- both for and against the Pilgrims. When they arrived in New England they first tried to go farther south -- any idiot could see that this land was inhospitably cold, and the Pilgrims were quite aware of their lack of supply.

They were also plagued with disease on the ship, and in the first weeks as they were moored in the bays of Cape Cod, they lost an astonishing number of people. Hardly a family was untouched by death, and some were utterly wiped out.

Thus it was with desperation that they made their first contact with Indians. And the Indians of Cape Cod were not friendly at all. They had had bitter contact with perfidious Europeans from previous voyages, and reacted accordingly -- it was war at first sight.

It didn't help that the Pilgrims, upon finding buried corn, stole it -- thus wiping out an Indian family's winter food supply. But, to be fair, there was thought (at first) of trying to find the owners and buy the food (not that it would have been for sale), and in due course, years later, restitution was made to the owners of the corn.

For this is the great misconception of later generations -- that there were all these named Pilgrims, individual people who had stories of their own, while the Indians were a sort of soup, a crowd without individual distinctions. The Pilgrims had no such delusions -- they recognized that each Indian was an individual and to a degree that might astonish those who have demonized all Europeans who settled in America, the Pilgrims for some time respected both the group and individual rights of the Indians that were their neighbors.

During those first weeks, as the Pilgrims sent out small expeditions in the ship's boats, they moved around the coast to an area where the natives had been drastically reduced in number by epidemic -- the lands of the Pokanoket tribe, and most particularly the homeland of a particular Indian of ambition, resourcefulness, and deceit -- a con man and entrepreneur named Squanto.

It was Squanto, whose immediate family had been wiped out by plague during a time when he was a captive of Europeans, who had learned enough English -- and English culture -- to know just what to say to them to get them to behave as he wanted. He saw in their arrival an opportunity to raise himself to a position of leadership and wealth among the Indians. All he had to do was manipulate the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets -- which, as long as he was their sole interpreter, was relatively easy to do.

You have to admire Squanto even as you are shocked by his perfidy; even though his machinations ended up costing him his life and nearly got the Pilgrims wiped out, during the first year he was vital to their survival.

The hero of the story, though, is Massasoit, the chief of the Pokanokets, who, with his people decimated by plague, seized upon the arrival of (and alliance with) the Pilgrims as his way of fending off the powerful Narragansett tribe, the ancient rivals of his people.

And, for a generation, it worked, more or less. The Pilgrims, despite the fact that their military leader, Miles Standish, was already too careless of Indian lives and of fine moral distinctions -- he too quickly regarded whole tribes as their enemies rather than isolating the individuals who were causing problems -- came to know their neighbors and dealt with them fairly ... by their standards.

The Wages of Greed

That was the source of the problems that eventually led to war. These Englishmen brought English property laws with them, which had nothing to do with the way Indians dealt with land. The Indians absolutely understood private ownership, but they also acted altruistically and cooperatively within the tribe and shared the resources of the land as a group.

The Indians built their lives around preparation, during the growing season, for the hard winter and spring to come. They grew maize in profusion and stored it up efficiently; they knew how to scavenge from the land.

But the Europeans cleared the scavengeable lands and planted on them. And as their holdings increased, the amount of land that could feed the wide-ranging tribes through hard winters shrank.

The Pilgrims bought every scrap of land they settled on. But like good free marketers always do, they set up a monopoly on trade and fixed the prices. It was true that they negotiated with Massasoit to set those prices -- but they knew, or should have known, that they were paying Massasoit in consumables for permanent ownership of land.

The result was that they were enriched, as their land holdings increased, while the Indians were impoverished, as they used up whatever trade goods the Pilgrims had given them and needed more.

The house of cards lasted until Massasoit's death. It was his son, called "King Phillip" by the Europeans, who reaped the whirlwind.

He found himself living on shrunken lands; he found the English united in their unwillingness to make the Indians more equal trading partners. The tribes of Cape Cod, once hostile to the English, had now mostly converted to Christianity and were becoming more and more assimilated into European ways. He did not want to follow that route.

And so he began to prepare for war. To get the guns and powder he needed, he sold off virtually all of his remaining land, guaranteeing that if he did not go to war, his people would starve. The die was cast.

Was war inevitable? In one sense, yes, given the cultural differences, the inability of either side to restrain their worst impulses -- greed, really, on both sides, though the English were better at it.

Missed Opportunities

But in another sense, no. What Philbrick chronicles is a tragedy of missed opportunities, every step of the way. Not just opportunities for peace, but also opportunities for victory, for shortening the war, for ending it with a settlement both sides could live with.

There are myriad lessons to be learned from this tragic tale, especially if we eschew propaganda and focus on what actually happened.

The Indians were not united, despite Philip's efforts to unite them. The English, on the other hand, were far more prone to act cooperatively among the colonies -- even colonies founded on divisions among the English, like Rhode Island.

Most of the English, however, persisted in the foolish, ignorant assumption that because the Pokanokets were planning war, all the local Indians were enemies. Thus the English quite needlessly provoked the great Narragansett tribe.

The English also assumed at first that the "praying Indians" -- the Christian converts from Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard -- could not be trusted. Thus they suffered several massacres of which they had been given plenty of warning by Praying Indians -- some of whom had exposed themselves to great risk to give those warnings.

But the English were not the only ones to make foolish mistakes. King Philip, on the verge of the great coup of enlisting the vast tribe of the Mohawks, part of the Iroquois civilization centered in New York, on his side. It is quite possible that if this had happened, the English colonies would have been destroyed, or at least forced to abandon all their outlying settlements, turning Boston, Plymouth, and a few other centers into little more than outposts, not colonies at all.

King Philip, incredibly and tragically, thought that the only way to achieve his goal was to murder some Mohawks in a way that would appear to the rest of the tribe as the work of Englishmen. He did not realize that the Mohawk hunting party he murdered had one member that they never saw, who was able to make his way to the Mohawk leaders and tell the truth. Now, instead of allies, the Mohawks became his mortal enemies.

Meanwhile, the Mohegans also cooperated with the English, remaining loyal to them throughout the war. So even though the English needlessly widened the war by attacking the Narragansetts, most Indians still remained outside the war or actively helped the English.

Why Should We Care?

There are lessons to be learned from this story. One of them is military: Know your enemy and know your friends. It was not until cooler heads prevailed among the English and they began to trust the Praying Indians and other allied tribes that they finally began to win victories. It is the strategy that we are at least attempting to follow in the war against Islamo-fascist terrorism -- our Special Ops soldiers, at least, absolutely depend on close relationships with local groups who know both the land and their own ancient enemies.

Another lesson is equity. If the Pilgrim leadership had taken far greater care to help teach King Philip how to bargain sensibly and understand English land law, there need not have been a war at all. But each time King Philip offered land in exchange for consumables, greed triumphed over equity. It was like cheating children, and they knew it at the time; they paid in blood, later, for their greed. In the long run they got all the land. In the process, though, they destroyed the people whose friendship, however complicated it was, had allowed their forebears to survive when they first arrived.

In this sad story there are heroes and villains, fools and cheats and ignorant twits aplenty, good guys and bad guys on every side. There are missed opportunities and bold victories. And the scale is small -- the actions of individuals made a crucial difference many times.

So Mayflower functions, not just as the large story of the conflict between Indians and Europeans that is one of the two core stories of American history (the other being the treatment of Africans who were imported as slaves), but also as the story of many individuals whose choices led to private sagas every bit as fascinating as the national epic they helped shape.

I experienced Mayflower on cd, read aloud -- brilliantly -- by George Guidall. I cannot imagine a better production. So if you don't think you have time to sit down and read a nice thick history book, spend a little more and get this great performance. I listened to it in bits and snatches while running errands in my car, and still was able to follow the story and remain emotionally involved in it.

In this review I have hardly been able to touch on the powerful stories contained within it -- the woman who was captured by Indians and had to watch her wounded baby die in her arms; the frontier settler who knew and liked the Indians and precisely because of that became the mot effective of Indian fighters, and many others who will come to life for you as you read -- or listen to -- this book.

It's not often that a mere book does such a splendid job of telling us who we are, not just as human beings, but also, quite particularly, as Americans. Bull-headed, ignorant, stubborn, heartless, but also generous, brave, wise, and open-hearted -- depending on which group prevails at any given moment.


John Lukacs's slim book June 1941: Hitler and Stalin does not pretend to be an exhaustive treatment of these two men, who set aside ideology long enough to divide Poland and begin World War II as allies, only to end it by slugging it out in the bloodiest war ever fought on this planet.

But the book does pretend to offer us some kind of understanding of why and how they worked together. The best we get, however, is a glimpse; alas, I wished for more.

Still, the book has value. It reminds us of the fact that while great forces influence events, so do powerful, hard-driving individuals like Hitler and Stalin, who killed millions in pursuit of their own ambitions. Both men consciously played to history; both are remembered, correctly, as monsters. They recognized each other's similarities, and at various times each expressed some degree of respect for the other.

If Stalin's vision had prevailed, and they had continued to cooperate until they divided the world between them, it would be safe to say that our present lives would be relatively hellish. Thank God that Hitler was even more ambitious and less able to brook rivals than Stalin was. They are the epitome of the struggle between alpha males, only the tribe they fought to rule was the entire population of Europe and Asia, and the weapons they used, and used up careless, were the lives of other people.

Oddly, though, Lukacs takes for granted the magnitude of their negative achievements. What he concentrates on are the minutiae of debate about what happened when, and why. Yet it is out of such small controversies that big pictures emerge. I'm glad I read the book. But I'm glad I also already knew the lives of both men and the course of the war they fought, because I fear that if this book had been my only source, I would have been confused and underinformed.

Think of it as a discussion with the professor after you have finished a course entitled "Hitler, Stalin, and World War II," in which the professors settles a few nagging questions that remain after you have learned all the main points.

E-mail this page
Copyright © 2023 Hatrack River Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.