Will Poole's Island, a new novel by Vermont writer Tim Weed, is a perfect fit for the Thanksgiving season. It's historical fiction set in the colonial era, and it tells the story of an English boy who becomes immersed in a native community.
Weed, whom several listeners recommended during our recent Fall Book Show, joined Vermont Edition to talk about the inspiration behind the story, and his interest in bringing accuracy to our understanding of how English and Native cultures collided.
In the novel, the protagonist Will Poole is an English teenager from a wealthy family, and his parents have died. He's under the care of a guardian whom he despises, and he feels deeply oppressed by the strict Puritan society in which he lives.
On Will Poole's teenage angst
"In many ways, he's what we would consider to be a typical teenager, in that he feels claustrophobic. He feels the need to get out and get away. But on top of that is the fact that he's existing in a historical period when oppression, or repression, in his community, he feels, is particularly acute. One of the things that was interesting in my research for the book was accounts of young English men and women who were kidnapped by different indigenous groups, and when it came time to be ransomed or rescued, they were often reluctant to return to these English communities, because they had found a sort of freedom and an ease the indigenous communities that they didn't have in English society."
On the inspiration for the book
"I was tracing my English ancestors back to the 1630s, and I started to learn about some very interesting stories. There was the story of Thomas Trowbridge, who came over to New Haven, Connecticut, and became one of the founders of New Haven with three young boys. And Thomas Trowbridge went back to England to fight for Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War, and was promptly killed in battle, leaving his three sons as orphans in the care of a servant, who turned out to be corrupt, and basically swindled these boys out of their fortunes. And so that was a very provocative story for me.
"At the same time, I have Native American ancestors – and that's a side that hasn't been well represented. There were no first-hand accounts of Native Americans before the 19th century. And so in a way, the motivation for the book was to sort of immerse myself in this period, and find out more about it, and find out, if I could, what I considered to be the truth about the period."
On the character Squamiset, who is based on a real person
"In 1614 – so this was six years before Plymouth Rock – an English sea captain named Thomas Hunt kidnapped 27 Algonquin-speaking Indians from different spots along the New England coast, and brought them back to Malaga, Spain, and sold them into slavery. One of this group was a Patuxet Wampanoag Indian, who called himself Tisquantum, which was a name that was shorted to Squanto. And Tisquantum had a very interesting story. He managed to escape slavery in Spain; he made his way up to England, and he spent five years in London, living in the household of an English nobleman who had interest in colonizing the New World. And so he became fluent in English, and made his way back to the New World. And when he came back, he became one of the interpreters for the Wampanoag who the pilgrims encountered when they landed at Plymouth Rock. It's a very interesting story, and Squamiset is, in a way, based on the story of Tisquantam."
On the novel's English colonists as cruel antagonists
"You know, the English – and I say this as someone who's descended largely from Englishmen – they came to America because they wanted purity. They wanted to escape what they saw as the religious pollution that they were experiencing in Europe. And so when they got to New England, they saw these Indians as devil worshippers. You know, these Indians had a form of religion that was impure. And so the reaction was very extreme. In 1637, there was the incident of the Pequot Massacre, where a group of Englishmen and Indian allies surrounded a walled village and burning it to the ground, killing 600 to 700 people and selling the survivors into slavery. And so this was a reflection of the period, this combination of thinking that Indians were devil-worshippers, and also, coincidentally, that the English needed more land – because they had a lot of people coming in who were looking for land – led to some real antagonism. So I feel like the book, in a way, is just reflecting the reality."
On the need to complicate the 'Thanksgiving myth'
"In 1621, there was indeed a meal between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims, or Puritans, but it's what I call the 'Thanksgiving myth.' And I think it does ring true as far as it goes, but I don't think it goes far enough. I think it's a much more complicated and interesting story.
"Most Americans … would say, 'Well, there's Thanksgiving, we learned to plant corn, we had this meal, the Pilgrims survived,' jump cut to 1776. And there's 150 years in there, and there's a lot that happened. There's these virgin soil epidemics that swept through New England between 1616 and 1619 and wiped out 95 percent of the population; there were several wars between the English and the Indians. There's a lot of very interesting history, and I think we need to be more honest with ourselves about our deepest national origins. Because in the process of retelling ourselves these stories, and redefining the Thanksgiving myth, and making it more real and more complicated, we're making ourselves better people; we're making ourselves better Americans. And we can go forward in a way that is more realistic and can lead to greater healing."