“Beheld: A Novel” by TaraShea Nesbit. New York and London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. 288 pages, $26 (hardcover).
It is 10 years after the first pilgrims settled Plymouth. Those from the Mayflower have come for religious freedom, but in reality the Puritans lead the town and keep others from worshipping, trading or living in freedom. When a new ship arrives with more settlers who have come to purchase their own plots, the outsiders of the colony had had enough.
TaraShea Nesbit writes the story of the pilgrims from the view of two wives, allowing the readers to see a side of the settlers that is so often forgotten. With details that immerse us in their world, and wonderful language, we see two different women battle for their way of life from varying levels of status. Plymouth becomes a place of conflicting accounts, oppressive religious leaders and behavior that cannot be accepted.
This was certainly a different take on the discovery of Plymouth for so many reasons. It was not just the fact that it was told from the women’s points of views; it also had sex, murder and so many unexpected moments. Imagining what the women were thinking during their hardships, or what they thought of the decisions their husbands made when they could not voice their own opinions. As in so much of our past, the women’s voices are lost. Nesbit takes a historical fiction novel and helps us put that voice back in.
Often, sacrifices of women are glossed over in history. For example, many of the women who traveled to the new world in the beginning left their children behind until they were more settled, could afford their passage or knew it would be safer for them to make the journey. I could never have left my son behind, no matter the reason, to travel to a new world. In some cases, it took years for the children to rejoin their parents. Other children were sent as orphans and as indentured servants for others. Many children did not survive the journey, and if they did, the work once in the colony was brutal.
Even now, with the world as it is, I couldn’t imagine packing everything and going to a new place far away for a new life. With the access to the internet, there is so much less unknown in this kind of occurrence. It took a sort of faith, or perhaps courage or desperation, that I have not had the need to know. I think in each of the women’s stories we read, we see motivations that could fall within each category. One was husbandless, living with her parents, and had had an attraction to the man who offered to marry her. Another had little choice in the matter, because her husband was set on the journey.
A theme throughout the novel is the idea of faith and hypocrisy. Those who are not of the Puritan faith see issues in how the Puritans are governing the colony. For the few who lived past their term as indentured servants (typically seven years), they now are still treated as lesser, though they are land owners and part of the colony in their own right. The Puritans look down on those who are not of their faith, much as they were outcasts in England.
In many ways, the Puritans were trying to escape a world that they simply re-created in the new world – but in their favor. There is such a power to greed, and the desire to be in charge. It caused added stress for the other settlers. Everyone wanted a fresh start in the new world, but in many ways they found themselves in a different set of troubles. The women work hard, and follow their husbands’ leads, but also are faced with an odd social structure. Because we see two women who are from different status levels, we see this play out not just in their interactions, but in the colonies.
The trials in the new colony were often unfair as well. This is something we see within this novel. When a character is tried, it is by people of a small community who are already biased against him and dislike him. He knows from the beginning that he will not be tried fairly, at least in his and his family’s eyes. The hypocrisy of this is also brought up in terms of their interactions with the Indians. The dynamics between the colonists and those who are outside of it are fascinating and well woven throughout the novel.
Nesbit does a wonderful job of showing how a mind can be skewed to a certain train of thought. The Puritan woman whom we follow talks about how she sees persecution where there is none. She wonders if it is really there, or if there is a problem simply because they are so used to it. They believe they have to be above reproach in order to protect themselves. Many journey to the colonies for a chance to rise in status. This does not play out well for most of the characters within this novel.
There were chapters from the men’s point of view, and one or two from nature. I found these to not be as engaging overall, nor what I had come to the story to see. I wanted more of the hardships they faced, of their wishes as mothers, of their daily routine. Seeing life as Pilgrims, as they journeyed across the sea, would have been very interesting. Dorothy’s story plays out through others, and though the slow reveal adds to the tension in the novel, I would have really enjoyed seeing Dorothy’s anguish through her own point of view.
Nesbit also wrote “The Wives of Los Alamos.” You can learn more about her at www.tarasheanesbit.com.
– Reviewed by Fallon Willoughby, first-year experience instructor, Southcentral Kentucky Community & Technical College.