The sections on the small band of believers leaving England for Holland, then for America, tell us things the myths don't mention -- that the Pilgrims were really a bunch of rubes, taken advantage of early and often. We've also forgotten that when they first arrived, local tribes were at the tail end of a devastating plague, likely deposited by European fishermen. Native villages were nearly emptied by death; the survivors probably needed the Englishmen's help more than the settlers needed the Indians'. Nonetheless, they shared Thanksgiving -- a fleeting moment of peace that opens to the part Philbrick really wants to get into.
After 50 years of relative harmony, baser instincts came to rule New England, where the colonies became exercises in land speculation. The losers in the equation were the original inhabitants. Soon enough, in 1675-76, war engulfed the region -- King Philip's War, as it became known to history. And a bloody war it was, butchering a greater percentage of Americans than any war since.
Along with a detailed depiction of the way Indians lived, Philbrick puts his mark on the tale by reclaiming an early American hero: Benjamin Church. Smart enough to write his memoirs, Church's adventures during the war are the backbone of the book. Church was a brutal Indian fighter, but he had compassion and practicality -- traits few of his contemporaries shared. He wanted to see the tribes and the settlers coexist, and at a time when the colonists regularly shipped off loads of Indians -- even friendly ones -- as slaves, he advocated cooperating with those Indians who wanted peace.
He understood the power of mercy and dignity, but his was a path not chosen, as Indians continued to be pushed out and killed in the lust for new lands. So Philbrick is left to offer up Church as relevant today, when we again seem to be in "a world suddenly gripped by terror and contention ... First and foremost," Philbrick sums up Church's view, "treat [the enemy] like a human being."