ANNE HUTCHINSON may have been the first white women in American who refused to keep her place and, and like uppity women before and since, she paid a price for it. A Puritan, she came with her family to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634 expecting to find religous freeedom. Instead she was met by repression, exile and excommunication.
There is enough raw drama in the life of Anne Hutchinson to satisfy the most finicky historian or biographer. But, like most women, Anne left few traces of her thoughts and feelings -- no papers, no letters, no evidence of the emotions which prompted the sacrifice she made. Not surprisingly, therefore, Marcy Heidish in Witnesses has told her story as fiction. She has written a "novel base on historical incidents," taking the known history as her narrative and peopling it with characters of her own creation. Working this difficult terrain between fact and fiction, Heidish has produced what they call in broadcasting a "docudrama." In fact, her novel often reads like a finished -- and admirable -- script for television (which is where her earlier novel about Harriet Tubman, A woman Called Moses, ultimately turned up).
Even before Anne Hutchinson set foot in the New World she had tangled with the Puritan fathers. On the voyage over, she took exception to a sermon preached by the Reverend Symmes (Anne favored salvation through grace; most of the Puritan clergy believed strictly in good works). From then on she was marked as a troublemaker.
She came by her eloquence and courage naturally. Her father, a dissident minister of the Church of England back home, had once been imprisoned and twice silenced for his opinions. Like him, Anne was a rebel. She was also an intellectual and prosperous gentlewoman, the wife of William Hutchinson, a merchant, whose fine house in Boston rivalled the house of Governor John Winthrop. Winthrop, a fervant Puritan unwilling to see his colony troubled by religious conflict of any sort, was Anne's most persistent enemy.
In some ways Anne Hutchinson was an early version of the 20th-century superwoman. She bore 16 children, practiced midwifery and gave spiritual leadership to dozens of women and men. They came to her weekly prayer meetings to hear Anne read the scripture," explicate" the Sunday sermon -- and speak openly about her radical notion that God was merciful and loving instead of vengeful
In short, Anne Hutchinson posed a threat to the grimly rigid establishment -- an establishment overwhelmingly Puritan and totally male. It was only a matter of time before they set out to bring her down. The campaign stated when all the clergymen of Massachusetts grilled her in a secret night session to prove that she had "disparaged" them. When they banned her prayer meetings as disorderly, she went right on and held them anyway, leading the Puritan grandees to deny her the right to speak openly in her own house. She was publicly tried twice for heresy, imprisoned for four months, and finally sentenced in 1638 to banishment from the colony and -- bitterest of all -- excommunication from the church that was the center of her life. In exile -- at the age of 46 -- she gave birth to her 16th and final child, a deformed baby whose "monstrous" birth was taken as a divine sign of Anne's wickedness, as was her brutal ene in 1643 when she and five of her youngest children were massacred by Indians in New York state.
Heidish handles Anne's character with care and discipline, building with painstaking precision a self-reliant, uninhibited -- and believable -- woman of wit and intellect whose delight in debating men of educated minds ultimately did her in. Heidish describes Anne through the eyes of a friend and also through her (fictional) diary, and provides only the most significant details -- details which suggest the self-confidence of such an unconventional woman. For example, during her imprisonment, rocks were frequently thrown through her window. One night they came, each with a scurrilous and misspelled note attached. "You hooring harlit," said one. Anne corrected the spelling and threw them back again to cheers from the crowd outside.
WITNESSES is written in a spare, controlled style which suits this stern, early American story and successfully suggests the unadorned earthiness of colonial life. Heidish describes the meeting house where Anne's first trial was held in November 1637 as "this dim damp splinted house of God, colder than outdoors . . . benches scraping back, the clanging of foot-warmers, a deepening hum of voices, there was a smell of damp woolen cloaks and and charring wood, of must and mildew and mice, smoke from the glowing foot-warmers rose, bluish, like incense in an old cathedral, drifting past the small high windows up to the webbing of rafters."
Although she shifts narrators -- from Nell, Anne's midwife friend, to Anne's diary -- in an occasionally awkward way, and the historical facts at time intrude self-consciously upon the story, Heidish has created a memborable portrait of a 17th-century American woman who sacrificed her home, her comfort and reputatin for principle.