New England starts with one of the best prefaces I’ve ever encountered: Editor Rodriguez wryly noting that prior to this book, his knowledge of New England history and the founding of America was pretty much limited to, “a country that was once inhabited by other nationals, reduced to several cities, a single Native American, a group of people who weren’t happy in England, and some charred bodies.” It was to correct that lack and bring to life individual histories – to give perspective to the founding portion of American history- that this book’s stories were collected. Quoting Rodriguez again, “these people did more than eat turkey and burn suspected witches.”
And yes, it is a very, very good book indeed.
The title is a bit misleading – this is a full color graphic novel (or, rather, a graphic history book) and not a comic. Ordered chronologically, this is a collection of very short stories that are loosely tied together by the shared history of a New England setting. All are about people and events, ramifications and repercussions, and the every day life of both Europeans and the natives.
Each story is by a different author/artist. Typically, I have a hard time with diverse collections since the abruptness of art styles or storytelling can be disconcerting and throw off a read. But the nature of the stories and the non-fiction grounding make the style differences not only palatable but enjoyable. The stories are just long enough that one didn’t get hooked on a particular style (art or storytelling) but not so short that they were disaffecting, either. Rodriguez manages a good balance throughout – from wordless tales to text-heavy historical factoids. From almost comic lighthearted illustrations to woodblock type carvings and beautiful pastel watercolors.
The stories are diverse: from the impact of the introduction of domesticated animals to the plight of indentured servants. Goodwives, clergy, governors, inkeepers, chiefs, braves – a lot of care was given to bring stories that represented all sides of New England life in the 1620 to 1750 time period. There are around 15 full color stories, ranging from landing in Plimouth (sc) to the last stands of the new England natives. There are also frontisplates with short descriptions of time periods in which the following stories would be set and reproductions of parts of important documents of the period. Finally, there are activities such as an origami mayflower to be made from cutouts of a book page.
The stories are interesting enough to read for enjoyment value; but of course, the historical value cannot be understated. Since these are stories that rarely have been told outside of academic circles, there isn’t any repetition of typical historical discussions about the founding of the colonies. Each story should be quite new to the reader. As well, the length of the stories make this a great book to use as a reading assignment – to discuss the thoughts presented within. The authors/artists don’t pander or spoonfeed the history: a great example is the last story in the book, about a young midshipman named Meliville and the day his crew fought and captured a large pale whale. The name of the midshipman is only given once, in passing – a wonderful observation of restraint and avoidance of overtelling the obvious.
I really enjoyed the stories and plan to share them with my 11 year old. As the editor notes, “they’re stories about people, which are oftentimes more interesting than stories about caricatures.”
Reviewed from an ARC. Quotes may not be final.