Mary Rowlandson’s book, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, was the inspiration and foundation for my novel, Flight of the Sparrow. First published in 1682, the book was Rowlandson’s account of her captivity by Native Americans in 1676 during what has come to be called King Philip’s War. The first publication in North America by a living woman, it became an immediate bestseller and for years remained one of the most popular books by a Puritan writer.
More importantly, it established a popular genre of “captivity narratives” that continues to this day. Rowlandson had hundreds of imitators who followed her basic structure – a surprise attack, descriptions of the captive’s journey, and his or her eventual release – and reinforced the moral and religious significance of the events. Among them are The Captivity of Hannah Dustin (1697), set during King William’s War, The Redeemed Captive (1707), describing the raid on Deerfield, MA during Queen Anne’s War, A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson, (1796) set during the French and Indian War, and A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824).
The captivity narrative eventually spread to other cultural forms, including stage and film. We still respond to captivity narratives today in reports of hostages or prisoners of war held by terrorists or kidnappers.
One reason for the popularity of these narratives is the unspoken sexual subtext. The Puritans of Mary Rowlandson’s day expected women captives would be raped. In their ignorance of native customs, they assumed natives would find English women sexually irresistible. Rowlandson went to great lengths to point out that she was never sexually threatened in any way. In her narrative she wrote, “not one of them ever offered me the least abuse of unchastity to me in word or action.”
Apparently that didn’t convince Nathaniel Saltonstall. In his narrative of the war he claimed that native warriors often raped their captives and forced the women “to satisfy their filthy lusts and then murdered them.” Benjamin Tomson even claimed that lust for colonial women had been motivated the native attacks. Even those Puritans who affirmed that natives had not assaulted captive women, such as Reverend William Hubbard, insisted that God had “restrained” them from sexual defilement.
Though no careful reader can find any hint of sexual violation in Rowlandson’s narrative, it’s not unlikely that prurient curiosity was at least partly responsible for the book’s popularity – and the popularity for the many captivity narratives that followed.