An Unclean Act

Written by Dean Burgess
Review by Michael I. Shoop

A meticulously researched first novel, Burgess’ story concerns what was likely the first recorded divorce in seventeenth century New England. Thomas Burge and Elizabeth Bassett are pledged to each other at a young age, when their families lived near Plymouth. Both families relocate to Sandwich, and the two are eventually married, but the union is not a success. Years later, Thomas is drawn to the Quaker faith, causing the couple to separate for good. The much younger Lydia Gaunt, long attracted to Thomas, marries him in a simplified Quaker ceremony – which leads to public notice, scandal, and punishment for all concerned.

Narrated mainly by Thomas, and occasionally by Elizabeth and Lydia, the novel accurately portrays the hardships of New England life, Indian customs and relations with the colonists, and Puritan beliefs and prejudices toward those of different faiths. The use of real people, such as Pilgrim John Alden and persecuted Quakeress Mary Dyer, adds authenticity to the story. A mostly successful attempt to breathe life into a compelling, but almost forgotten, episode of early American history.