06. The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos

51ekjmutwolWhere I read it: in bed at the end of a very, very busy weekend in June seeing my parents and brother

I’m on book 13 of 20 Books of Summer, but I’m way behind on reviews (even though I’m keeping them brief!) so here’s another one.

In 1703, the village of Deerfield, Massachusetts was raided by a French and Indian war party. The town’s Puritan minister, John Williams, was taken captive along with his wife and their five children. Mrs. Williams, heavily pregnant, died en route to Canada;   John Williams was ransomed two and a half years later, and most of his children too were eventually returned to him. Only one was “unredeemed”: Eunice, five years old at the time of her capture, remained with the Mohawks. The Unredeemed Captive is about Williams’s attempts over many decades to free his daughter—to redeem her not only physically (by bringing her back) but spiritually (by reinculcating in her the Puritan traditions of her childhood). Expeditions to release her, negotiations between French Canadian and colonial English governments, intelligence from fur trappers and merchant traders: all were in vain. Eunice forgot how to speak English within a few years of her capture, converted to a frontier form of Catholicism, married a young Mohawk, raised children with him, and above all—when finally located and visited by what remained of her family—refused to return to Massachusetts.

It’s a fascinating premise, and John Demos, a Yale historian, tells it with due attention to historical context. The French and Indian wars are a complicated and frankly bewildering time in American colonial history; the fact that they occurred pre-Revolution, also, means that they tend to be glossed over during American school history classes. I knew virtually nothing about them beyond the fact that they had happened. Demos digs deep into the implications of Eunice’s captivity: because French Canadians had developed a level of co-existence with Indian tribes and, in some communities, lived together with them, the world into which Eunice was plunged was one of what the Puritans regarded as spiritual heresy. By forgetting her catechism in favour of the pagan-tinted Catholicism of Frenchified Mohawks, not only was John Williams’s daughter lost to him in this life; she was lost to him in eternity, as well, unless he could retrieve—redeem—ransom her. The connotations of all of those words are not accidental.

Demos uses contemporary sources to excellent effect: sermons, letters and diaries feature heavily, particularly those of John Williams and his son, Eunice’s brother, Stephen. He  acknowledges the problem with relying on the written word—that we cannot know what Eunice thought or felt—though there is one surviving letter from her, and he analyzes its text with a thoughtful tenderness that suggests a true investment in his subject. Elsewhere, he freely admits to speculation, and writes sections in italics that describe turning points in the drama: the trek to Canada, the marriage of Eunice with her Mohawk husband, the meeting between Eunice and her father after many decades, and what might have been going through her head.

If the novelistic approach here clashes with the slightly dry facts and figures in other places (Demos ensures that if we’re confused by the vagaries of the French and Indian wars, it’s not for lack of information), I’m willing to give it a pass: the book is so illuminating on a period I know so little about, and so generous in its examinations of how the religious, social, and political currents of a whole world affect the beliefs and actions of individuals. It is, in short, the kind of book that tells a story, situated within a wider context (Demos admits freely that he likes history for its storytelling potential). It approaches history in the same way as my best teachers did at school: as a way of making sense of people.

The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos (New York: Papermac, 1996 [1994])

11 thoughts on “06. The Unredeemed Captive, by John Demos

    1. Well, one of mine so far has been a short poetry book (by Sharon Olds), and Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson) got read in a day!

    1. It’s non-fiction, though the sections he writes in italics are a sort of omniscient fiction-like guessing at what happened. But yeah – it’s history.

  1. This sounds like an interesting book that maybe ventures into a category like creative historical nonfiction! Can we put all those together? That’s what it sounds like to me. The description of the woman forgetting English reminds me of the movie Dances With Wolves, though I know that picture is criticized for some words being pronounced incorrectly in Lakota language, and others have said that Kevin Costner played the “white savior,” though I feel iffy about that claim.

    1. I’ve never seen Dances With Wolves (my film knowledge is very poor), but there’s a huge theme of assimilation and feeling as though you don’t belong to your “home” culture, so there are probably some similarities there. Creative historical nonfiction – that’s what a lot of the italicized sections feel like! He’s very careful with the sources where they exist, which makes me more willing to trust him when he goes off-piste a little; it’s a good technique.

  2. This sounds absolutely fascinating. This searching and complex way of doing history has such a lot to offer the reader.

    1. Highly recommended – the more abstruse political stuff can be skipped without detriment to the book, although if you find it interesting, it’s pretty good too.

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