Jill Lepore's Scholarly Work On The Algonquin Indians Is Infused With The Immediacy Of Good Journalism.
By Gregory McNamee
The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity, by Jill Lepore (Knopf). Cloth, $30.
IF YOU ASKED a movie director to stage a film about massacres and assorted savageries involving Indians and Anglos, the chances are good that you'd find it set with a saguaro, or at least sagebrush, in the background. Jill Lepore's superb study of an all-but-forgotten war that had a profound effect on Anglo American perceptions of the Indian may change all that; henceforth, our murder-and-mayhem historical dramas may be set in the tall pines of New England, and not in the Wild West.
Lepore, an assistant professor of history at Boston University, offers an account of an 18-month war between English settlers and Algonquin Indians in New England, a "short, vicious" conflict that, by proportion of population, "inflicted greater casualties than any other war in American history." Her heavily documented account is peppered with more than the usual atrocities: Men, women, even children are tortured and murdered, whole cities burned. It's also riddled with mysteries: As Lepore writes, the war began thanks to rumor, an unsolved murder, and pent-up but vague hatreds among people who had become more and more like one another. The English, far from home, had adopted Native American customs and cuisine, had stopped attending church, had steadily moved farther inland, away from European settlements. The Indians, for their part, had taken to wearing clothes, living in houses, reading the Bible. With identities thus confused, each side waged a war that the other condemned as brutal and savage, and thousands died in the bargain.
Lepore's account reads with the immediacy of good journalism. She also fills her pages with learned asides about anthropological theories of conflict, the effect of literacy on hitherto preliterate populations, the nature of ethnic strife, and, most important, the memory of King Philip's War in New England and elsewhere--a memory that tempered later policies of war and removal (and that is revisited even today, as Native Americans press their claims for land first loss in the aftermath of that war in 1675-76).
"In the end, this book is just another story about just another war," Lepore writes, with wholly undue modesty. Vivid and thoughtful, it's much more than that, and it holds the promise of good work to come.
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