Hugh Nissenson’s ‘The Pilgrim,’ reviewed by Ron Charles

Correction: An earlier version of this review conflated the Pilgrims, who were separatists who arrived on the Mayflower to found Plymouth Colony in 1620, and the Puritans, who later founded the Massachusetts Bay Company. This version has been corrected.

November 22, 2011

Turkeys aren’t the only ones who take the heat on Thanksgiving. Every year around this time, the Pilgrims are plucked out of context, stuffed with alien ideas and served up on a bed of nostalgia. It’s probably too late for the birds, but with a little honest investigation, our forefathers might still be saved from the honey glaze of caricature. After all, most of us never get any closer to the early Americans than Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter” or Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” and after that grim introduction, who wouldn’t rather cut handprint turkeys from construction paper and reenact a Native-friendly feast?

But Hugh Nissenson has just published a strikingly original novel about a young man who comes to the New World in 1622. Without any cranberry sauce or witch burnings to spice things up, “The Pilgrim” offers, instead, the most intimate engagement with those early Americans that I’ve found in a work of fiction. For many readers, to be honest, this will be as palatable as ground Indian corn, but if you really want to taste the physical and mental world in which they lived, here’s a book to explore.

Henry James once complained that historical novels are “fatally cheap,” which makes me grateful I never had to watch The Tudors” with him. And yet we all know what he meant: Even when the plot conforms to the known facts, and the dresses hang with flawless accuracy, and the homes look like a window on the past, most historical novels still ask us to swallow strangely modern attitudes: The heroines are closet feminists, the heroes have a deep respect for blacks and Jews, and nobody — except possibly for a tragic, unstable character — has any interest in religion, unless it’s vague and New Agey.

Nissenson’s solution to the anachronisms of most historical fiction is a kind of suicidal authenticity, which may explain why no large New York publishing house would release this novel, despite the fact that he has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. “The Pilgrim” presents itself as a public confession of faith, a requirement for membership in early New England churches. “I shall write in a plain style and tell the truth as near as I am able,” begins 28-year-old Charles Wentworth in his statement to the “saints” of Plymouth Colony.

With remarkable fidelity Nissenson imitates the jarringly stark voice, the intensely devout tone and the harrowing details of physical survival that mark writings of this period. He also retains enough of the period diction to sound authentic but not so much to leave us baffled. Charles, for instance, admits, “I was lewdly disposed to beauteous language and could not renounce my satanical yearning for the pleasure it gave me.” Despite how chewy this antique presentation can be, it allows us to experience not only the lives of those religious radicals who sailed off to the edge of the world but also their truly separate consciousness.

Today, in a climate of relatively friendly theology, most of us can barely imagine the spiritual anxiety that racked these souls 400 years ago. John Calvin had insisted that salvation was predetermined before the world began: Nothing so important could be earned or forfeited by the actions of men. The devout pilgrim, then, was left to study his consciousness for the traces of grace, the evidence of that undeserved reward, and that’s the burden Charles takes on almost as soon as he can walk.

When Charles is 7 years old, his father, a respected minister, challenges the boy outside their church door: “How will you know you are saved?”

“Sir, I know not how I should come by such knowledge,” the boy replies.

And then his father reveals the essential paradox of their way: “The truth is, we all live in doubt.”

By describing the pendulum of Charles’s faith, Nissenson conveys the exquisite agony of that condition. For all our silly parodies of uptight Pilgrims, they were on fire; despair was their greatest temptation. Despite following his father’s footsteps toward the ministry, Charles confesses, “I was nothing but a mass of sin.” And his interior battle reflects the treacherous natural world in which he lives: Smallpox hideously disfigures those lucky enough to survive, and even a tiniest cut can begin the quick slide through infection, fever and death. Starvation is an ever-present threat.

With his well-employed father and prosperous uncle, Charles enjoys a certain degree of security in England, but he must still figure out how to spend his life — and with whom. The sweetest moments in this story describe his courtships and the central role that faith plays even in the most intimate moments with his fiancee. “We shall soon lie abed, taking pleasure in each other as man and wife,” Charles says in a rare moment of sexy talk. “May our bodily delight be a temporal intimation of our eternal spiritual union with Christ.” Whoa, down boy!

When Charles sails to the New World in hopes of avoiding temptation, his life becomes woven into the events behind our national myth of Plymouth Plantation, and some truly harrowing adventures await. Gov. William Bradford passes through these pages, as does little Capt. Standish, but in general Nissenson sticks to the details of Charles’s story while giving a bracing portrayal of how precarious the earliest settlements were — how close starvation, disease, dissent and cold came to wiping them out. Nissenson is particularly deft in handling the Pilgrims’ conflicted relations with Indians, those savages who needed to be saved or killed or appealed to for food, depending on the weather.

The novel’s Puritanical style gradually thaws as the story progresses, which I found a little disappointing even as it made for enjoyable reading. We get more natural-sounding dialogue, gracefully constructed episodes and even a few of those anachronistic modern ideals that look like a microwave oven in a mud hut. But all in all, Charles remains a distinctly separate kind of man, though endowed with an earnestness that speaks across the centuries. If you’re really interested in the people who might have celebrated Thanksgiving near Plymouth Rock, “The Pilgrim” is a novel to be grateful for.

Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.

THE PILGRIM

By Hugh Nissenson

Sourcebooks Landmark. 356 pp. $24.99

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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