It’s Thanksgiving time! And living in New England, where it all happened, I can’t help but be drawn to our deep and fascinating history. This is where the Puritans landed, where Englishman and native American lived together, where brotherhood sometimes reigned but where wars and viruses also decimated some of the tribes of Massachusetts.
It’s also the location of the original American with hemophilia (if you don’t count whichever native American may have had it first; with no records we will never know). America’s first family with hemophilia was the Appletons. I’ve written about them before here, and we printed a great article about them in PEN, back in 2002. They should never be forgotten, just as our forefathers should not be forgotten.
Arriving in New England on a sailing ship on a chilly fall day in 1639 was John Oliver (1613–1642) of Bristol, England, who had hemophilia. Like many English, he was fleeing the increasingly repressive English environment for Protestants. Indeed, between 1629 when King Charles I dissolved the Puritan-friendly Parliament, and 1640 when the English Civil War began (eventually Puritans under Oliver Cromwell behead Charles and take over), more than 20,000 English left to settle in New England, and in particular, the Massachusetts Bay colony.
John lived for only three years after arriving, fathering one child, Mary, and dying young as a consequence of his hemophilia. Not until after 1800 did the medical community begin using the term hemophilia to describe his disorder. John’s daughter, Mary Oliver (1640–1698), was likely the first hemophilia carrier of European descent born in the colonies. With her husband, Major Samuel Appleton, Jr. (1625–1696), Mary had three daughters and five sons. One of these sons, Oliver Appleton (1677–1759), was the first American colonist born with hemophilia! And they lived about 20 minutes from where I live now, and to this day, you can go to Ipswich and see the historic Appleton farms.
To read more about this story, and life with hemophilia in colonial America, November 2002 Issue Parent Empowerment Newsletter “The Appletons: America’s “First Family” With Hemophilia,” by Richard J. Atwood and Sara P. Evangelos. © 2002 LA Kelley Communications, Inc. It’s also reprinted in an earlier Blog: https://www.blog.kelleycom.com/search/label/Oliver%20Appleton
This is a great Thanksgiving read, and I chose this book knowing it was a young writer’s hip take on the founding of Boston (history near and dear to me). Not about the 1620 Pilgrims but about John Winthrop and his Puritans who arrive on the Arbella in 1630, the Massachusetts Bay colonists. The book is worth reading for the interesting take on history: you’ll learn about the religious motives that drove the Puritans, how they differed than the Pilgrims, who were Separatists, life in old Boston, the Pequot War and massacre, Anne Hutchinson, and the complex relationship between Winthrop (Massachusetts’ first governor) and Roger William (Rhode Island’s founder). All this is done with a snappy, sometimes sarcastic, crisp and witty style they should appeal to young people especially. There are no chapters in the 248 page book, making it a long read, at times a bit tedious on the eyes. I like her style when she is sticking strictly to the history, and she has mostly done her homework.
Sadly, the book has three big problems. First, she veers off into numerous tangents or gets stuck on a subject too long. Somehow Vowell will be speaking about a memorial to the indomitable Anne Hutchinson, and suddenly get on a rant about how business reply cards offer men one check box for their title (“Mrs.”) but women get three (“Mrs., Miss, Ms.”) which obviously is a judgment against women for their lifestyles—give it a rest, Sarah!
Sometimes the religious focus goes on and on, and I wondered where the book was going when suddenly, boom—we get back on track and resume the fascinating story of “olde” Boston again.
Second, her sarcasm, which works well in small doses when spicing up the history, works against her when she attempts, quite inadequately, to parallel events in the 1600s as direct forerunners to modern day politics and world events. Vowell just does not have the academic chops to make these comparisons, and the result comes across as a poorly researched analysis, bolstered mostly by sound bites and shrieking liberalism–and I am a liberal, and found it embarrassing. I felt I was reading a biased essay by a freshman in a college writing class. It was juvenile and took her away from the deep waters of the moment-to-moment events of Boston that I was enjoying, into shallow waters of her political point-of-view, where she lacks depth. She drew very poor conclusions based on hasty and questionable extrapolations.
Third, there’s just too much personal interjection in the book. It detracts from the mostly delightful text; it reflects poorly on Vowell, because she reveals her own skewed biases against any religion, and against modern day conservatives. She is an armchair atheist, proudly proclaiming that she prefers her desk and comfy room, rather than front-line experience. She reveals at somewhat awkward times in the book her own strange childhood experiences with religion. The book becomes more a revealing look at a young author who has some psychological axes to grind. It really does detract from the story.
I recommend the book, nonetheless. If you are a writer or debater this would be a great book to chew on. Vowell should be challenged on her many assumptions, particular when she tries to tie a motto on the Mass Bay Colony logo to American imperialism in WW II, Vietnam, Korea and Iraq, all in one sentence. I think Vowell has talent, but has issues to overcome. If she can get herself out of the way, I think she’d be an outstanding writer. I love the idea of making history entertaining—and by entertaining I mean exciting to read, fun to read, or even thought provoking. Vowell is not there yet, but could be someday. Read it for the history, and be sure to challenge her assumptions, connections to present-day, and opinions. Have fun with it! Boston has a fascinating history and I am glad she wrote about it. Three out of five stars.