The Last Pilgrim
I’ve always been interested in American history, especially that of the early American settlers, who endured many hardships as they built lives in a new land. I very much enjoyed reading Noelle Granger’s latest book, The Last Pilgrim, a rich historical fiction about Mary Allerton Cushman, the last surviving passenger of the Mayflower.
In 1620, Mary Allerton was four years old when she and her family arrived on the Mayflower in what would soon become Plymouth Colony. She grew up and married Thomas Cushman, a man she’d known since childhood, who became a Ruling Elder of the colony. Together they worked the land and raised eight children. Like all of the settlers, however, they faced many dangers and endured sickness, hardship and loss. Both Thomas and Mary lived long lives, despite these trials. Thomas died in 1691 at age eighty-four and Mary died in 1699 at age eighty-three.
This well-researched story is told mostly in Mary’s voice and some in her father, Isaac Allerton’s. It portrays her as a bright young girl, full of questions and a mind of her own. When her mother dies, Isaac Allerton fears that Mary, his youngest child and a willful girl, will be without proper supervision. He places her in Governor William Bradford’s household where Alice Bradford teaches her the many difficult tasks assigned to women, including caring for children, cooking, gardening, spinning wool, weaving flax, helping with childbirth, learning herbal remedies, and making candles, soap and beer. As a member of the Bradford household, Mary’s inquisitive mind is also tuned in to William Bradford’s colony business, an interest she cultivates and maintains throughout her life, and for which she often receives rebukes from her husband. “It isn’t your place to question me, wife. I’m responsible for our welfare and will see to it,” Thomas tells her.
Granger’s unfiltered history also reveals the complex and ever-changing relationships colonists had with the different Native American tribes, who were often at war with each other and had treaties and alliances with different tribes and colonies. She shows this darker side of American history, a time when settlers stole corn from the natives, pillaged their camps and, during times of war, massacred Indians, including women and children. Other descriptions reveal the colonists’ challenges as they try to establish a community, including the ever-present pressure for payment of debts to the Merchant Adventurers, who financed their voyage, and the simmering conflict with England over independence.
Family life and the Separatists’ religious beliefs are also prominent themes in Granger’s story and she portrays the settlers matter-of-factly in their efforts to worship, propagate and govern. Discipline was important as well as knowing one’s place and while Granger’s Cushmans love their children, they raise them under the strict rules of the times, with frequent thrashings for impertinence. Punishments for transgressions in their community include hangings and other harsh sentences. It’s no wonder these early settlers were tough, which likely made them able to survive.
The Last Pilgrim is full of life and history and is an uncensored look at early American settlers. Granger’s extensive research is evident in its telling and I found it easy to imagine Mary Cushman’s life with all its difficulties as well happy times. I recommend The Last Pilgrim to readers who enjoy historical fiction and want to learn more about early American life.
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