About a third of the way through Thetford author Amy Belding Brown's Flight of the Sparrow, the novel appears to settle in to a standard chick-lit narrative. The Puritan heroine, Mary Rowlandson, is abducted by Native Americans from her Massachusetts Bay Colony home in a violent raid. During her three-month-long nomadic captivity, a tall, English-speaking Indian named James appears at key moments to protect her. Soon, she "completely surrender[s] to the consolation of his presence ... of his body."
Thank goodness the story changes course. Perhaps it had to: Brown based her novel on the real Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative about her abduction by the Nipmuc and Narragansett tribes in 1675, which ends with her restoration. Sometimes called the country's first bestseller, Rowlandson's full account is online and still fascinating to read more than 300 years later. Brown's story, told in third person and present tense, expands Rowlandson's condensed account and continues beyond it, as the author imagines how dramatically changed her heroine — a properly submissive minister's wife and mother of three — might have been by her experience.
In Flight of the Sparrow, those changes have a very modern ring. Mary, enslaved to the tribe's female leader, Weetamoo, witnesses the sachem wielding an authority over men that the goodwife never thought possible. And, despite the disembowelments and infant bashings she witnessed during the raid, Mary notes the Indians' generosities: The men never rape female abductees; the women raise their children without harsh discipline; food is shared equally among everyone, from slave to sachem, even in times of near-starvation.
Thrust into an environment where the Puritan God seems absent, Brown's Mary begins to question her religion. Pieties she has always uttered in good faith — "The Lord is merciful and kind and greatly to be praised" — sound increasingly like "mere habit" to her. By the time she is ransomed back to the settlers, she no longer wants to return to her former life.
And no wonder: The author, herself a minister's wife, makes the kind of Christianity the Puritans fled England to practice look practically malicious. Mary's husband, Joseph, is the worst. "You are tainting my ministry!" he roars after learning Mary has helped a woman give birth out of wedlock. After her experience of being enslaved, Mary refuses Joseph's suggestion that she take on one of the defeated Indians as a house slave — a common practice among the Puritans, who also kept and sold African Americans. Joseph is enraged at her defiance and reads her "long verses of Scripture that justify the keeping of slaves" while she stands with head bowed.
In one of the novel's most convincing twists, Mary writes her now-famous narrative under pressure from her husband. Joseph wants to restore his reputation in the community as a paragon of faith — a status now threatened by his tie to a woman presumably violated by savages and given to new and strange habits, such as enjoying nature in solitude. Brown couldn't have thought of a better way to skewer colonial Christianity.
Mary's incipient feminism, abolitionism and especially secularism seem like themes more geared toward gratifying the modern reader than toward illuminating 17th-century colonial life. Brown explored the first two of those themes in her earlier novel Mr. Emerson's Wife — published by Macmillan, and praised by authors Geraldine Brooks and Susan Cheever — whose 19th-century setting makes such concerns more believable. As for Mary's questioning of faith, in an author interview included in the book, Brown explains that the religious commentary and biblical quotes that infuse Rowlandson's account struck her as "layers" added to the original, fast-moving story of the Puritan's experience.
Rowlandson's narrative actually casts her experience as a spiritual test. But it's easy to understand the impulse to fictionalize: Who's to say the woman didn't feel internal or external pressure to shape her story according to the beliefs of the day? Brown goes one step further, ascribing the narrative's religious commentary wholly to Mary's editor, the shrewd and patriarchal Increase Mather. The author made a similar leap in Mr. Emerson's Wife, portraying the historical close friendship between Lidian Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as an affair.
Rather than religion, this Mary's guiding light becomes James, who acquired his flawless English (in Brown's rendering) as a printer's apprentice. Brown's debut novel was a romance called Island Summer Love, and she hasn't quite left the genre behind. Flight too often reaches for romantic clichés that blend, disturbingly, with clichés about Native Americans: James' "sorrowful gaze [is] like an arrow, piercing her"; he "gazes past Mary at the budding trees, as if he can see through their branches into the future."
James gradually transforms from ideal lover to spokesperson for humanism, voicing astute critiques of the settlers' insularity and cruelty. Brown's writing is the kind that leaves no mystery about how characters feel from moment to moment; nothing is hinted at or left for the reader to fill in. When a new love interest, Samuel, begins courting Mary, "He tells Mary that he admires her steadfastness as well as her passionate spirit." Such a style makes for quick reading, if nothing else.
What does remain with the reader after finishing Flight of the Sparrows are the startling particulars of the colonists' treatment of the Indians after they crushed the rebellion during which Rowlandson was captured. Called King Philip's War, after the Wampanoag tribe's sachem Metacomet who led it (known to the British as King Philip), the conflict broke out after decades of peace and even friendship between the two cultures. Its catalyst was the Indians' too-accurate realization that the land grab would never end. Brown's book helps bring that pivotal, and morally fraught, time in the country's founding back to life.
Weetamoo's wetu [wigwam] is daily filled with talking women, and sometimes Mary slips outside and sits with her back against the sturdy bark wall, shivering beneath her blanket. Everyone is waiting for news of the Medfield attack. They are anxious for their men, worried they might not return. Their anxiety reminds Mary of the mood in Lancaster after the Indian raid in August, of the winter evenings she and her sisters sat sewing and talking. Yet it unnerves her to consider that Indian women might be so very much like Englishwomen.
She is surprised at how often Weetamoo leaves her to her own devices. She must realize Mary knows she cannot survive alone in the wilderness long enough to make her way home. Her disinterest grants Mary an uncommon freedom and often little to do. All her life, Mary has been closely watched, and required to toil from waking to sleeping. She has been taught that idleness is a sin, and has long resisted its temptations. Yet, in her new position as a slave, she is often forced to it.
Slowly, Mary discovers in idleness a strange expansion of time and a growing awareness of the natural world. She begins to watch the flight of sparrows through the winter air and the dance of red squirrels in the trees. She notes the changes in clouds, the slant of sunlight as it falls on snow, the tight red buds of winter trees. All these things she has seen before, but only as background to her life's duties. Now she begins to understand that trees and birds and clouds and animals have a significance of their own that is independent of human activity.
It is an astonishing thought. She has never heard anyone express such an idea before.
One afternoon, squatting in a small pool of sunlight that is all the warmth the season has to offer, listening to the calls of birds, she hears a shout in the distance. It is echoed by another, and then a third, and soon by an entire chorus of whooping shrieks. Alarmed, she gets to her feet.
All around her, women rush out of the wetus and hurry along the path through the village. Mary follows at a distance. She does not wish to be observed, but is determined to discover the source and significance of the cries.
In the center of the village a circle of women is singing and shouting. The women laugh and sway as they sing. They raise their arms joyfully. Their song is wild and disharmonious, but Mary feels strangely moved. She finds herself swaying at the edge of the circle in time to their music.
Slowly she begins to understand what she sees and hears. The women are echoing the shouts of returning warriors. The attack on Medfield has been successful. The Indians have killed many English. They have brought the scalps to prove it.