American history reveres the Pilgrims, families seeking to escape persecution and freely practice their religion in the New World. Yet a colony devoted to the glorification of God must confront the darker elements of human nature: in 1630, barely ten years after its establishment, Plymouth experienced its first murder. (Omitting Miles Standish’s slaughter of Native Americans, of course.) John Billington shot his neighbor, John Newcomen, after encountering him in a field. Billington was tried and executed.
The few historical accounts give no motive other than a past “quarrel” between the two men, but Nesbit has taken this snippet and crafted a vivid tale, rife with foreboding, of life in a divided colony. She uses multiple perspectives; chief amongst them are Billington’s wife, Eleanor, and Alice Bradford, wife of colony governor William Bradford – an intentional emphasis on the female. The Billingtons are mischief-makers but painted as having a reason to be. As Anglicans and former indentured servants, they are viewed by the Separatist Pilgrims as profane “Strangers,” and assigned inferior parcels of land. The Billingtons do themselves no favors by responding to perceived slights with bile, attempting to foment dissent and sabotage the colony with its investors, which results in social ostracism. The murder manifests as a dissatisfied man’s rage spilling over onto an innocent victim.
Nesbit’s novel is a mishmash of rumination on love and motherhood combined with a suspenseful tale of partisan discontent and personal animosity leading to an inevitable, tragic conclusion. The novel is hampered by a few irrelevant interludes randomly added for social comment (e.g., the rape of a maidservant), and forced, inconsistent attempts at Puritan-speak. These caveats aside, the novel is a gripping read propelled by vibrant characterization, and an engrossing take on the Plymouth colony and America’s first murder.