One of the pleasures of writing historical fiction is vividly imagining what it must have been like to live in another time and place. As I’m shaping a novel, I usually do a lot of preparatory writing that never makes it into the book. Here’s a sample, describing the experience of a young Nipmuc boy when he first encounters John Eliot, the 17th century Puritan missionary to the Indians. This boy will grow up to become James Printer, who became a printer’s apprentice in Boston and helped Eliot translate and print his “Indian Bible.”
I was five when I first saw a coat man. It was summer and my family had traveled east, following the fish and deer. My mother built her wetu near a river and planted corn in the flat field behind. There were other wetus, filled with aunts and cousins. The camp was laid out in a circle, like a great hoop, protecting all the people. In the center of the circle was a smaller circle of big stones the men placed there.
I thought the coat men very odd. They covered their bodies covered in stiff black material, though it was summer when the sun made the earth warm and people did not wear skins. The village dogs thought them odd, too; they swarmed them in excited circles, barking.
There were two coat men. My cousin told me they were English, a word that I had never heard, an empty word that had no meaning inside it.
I soon learned that the coat men had other names – Ell-ye-yot and Goo-kin – and I found comfort in this, even though they were also empty words that had no meaning I could fathom. But they were proof that these two English were not alone in the world, that they had kin and friends somewhere.
The coat men gave gifts to my father: two knives, a blanket and a string of wampum. I noticed that Eliot and Gookin were both shorter than my father and brothers. The one called Eliot had hair the color of a muskrat pelt, not only on his head, but beneath his nose and chin. He did not dress his hair, but let it fall untended in waves that reminded me of water after a storm. The other man was younger and sadder. All afternoon my father and my oldest brother sat with them under a big chestnut tree outside the circle of wetus.
I sat with my mother and helped her shell beans. I asked her about the men. They did not look friendly or happy in their strange black clothes. My mother stroked my hair, which rose in black spikes at the crown. “Do not worry, Anequsemes, my little chipmunk. They live far away by the sea. They are not our enemies.”
I did not ask how she knew. My mother was wise and understood many things. She had seen the sea once when she journeyed with her people – the Qunnipieuck – to a feast hosted by the Pocasset sachem, Corbitant. She had told me about the short, crooked pine trees of the forest in that place. She had described the shore of brown sand and the pink and white shells she had collected there. She explained how the sea was a great lake, a lake so large no one could see the other shore. It had its own spirit, Paumpagussit. I tried to imagine the sea but could not.
When I tired of shelling beans, I played with the dog, then wandered up the hill and lay in the grass near the talking men. I listened to the strange words of the coat men and whispered them to myself. They were sharp, spiky words. They sat on my tongue like porcupine quills. I whispered them slowly and carefully so that they would not cut my lips.
Eliot and Gookin talked with my father and brother late into the afternoon and even though it was not the people’s custom to eat together, all the men gathered around the stewpot and ate as one. I watched them use pieces of baked noohkik to scoop the lumpy paste from the pot. Once Eliot looked at me and smiled. That night everyone slept in the wetu; I curled like a young rabbit against my mother’s back.
On the second day, Eliot began to tell tales of heroes and spirits. He gathered all the people who would listen and I sat all afternoon with the other children, carving the figures of two small deer into a stick as I listened. Eliot did not know many words of Nipmuc but made himself understood by signs and the words of the Massachuset and Wampangoag peoples. He told of Jesus, a strong ahtuskou who lived many years ago in a distant land. This ahtuskou would come, he said, and the people must be ready for him when he did. He talked of Keihtan and a god named Jehovah and he said there was only one spirit, not many as we had been told.
The elders listened politely but I saw that most of them did not like the stories because their own were better.
Eliot and Gookin left on the third day and life went back to normal except the people did not stop talking about the two strangers. The powauws dreamed of snakes and hawks and smoked many pipes of tobacco to cleanse the air.
But it was too late. The strangers had infected the people. Sokanonaske, Tuckapewillin’s wife, saw a white porcupine when she was hoeing squash, and Konkontusenump encountered a fire spirit when he walked at night by the river. The people gathered around the fire and told their own stories to strengthen their hearts. But they knew the strangers would return.