My Thanksgiving Read: Flight of the Sparrow

FlightoftheSparrow

James finally stops teasing her and hands her the piece of liver, which Mary quickly spits on a stick and sets at the edge of the fire to roast. She is near fainting as the sweet odor fills her nostrils. As she closes her eyes for a moment to savor it, a girl runs up and snatches it out of the fire. Mary screams and grabs it but the girl doesn’t let go, and the liver rips in two chunks. The girl runs off and Mary stands holding the torn piece in both hands. For an instant she wonders if she should finish roasting it, then realizes she will likely lose what’s left if she does. She eats the half-raw liver like an animal; blood runs from the sides of her mouth and dribbles onto her apron. Her mouth and chin are smeared with grease and blood.
She is so absorbed in eating, she doesn’t see James return. When she finally looks up, he is standing a few feet away, watching her. He smiles. “‘Tis as I thought,” he says. “You have become Indian.”
Mary feels a wave of shame. “Nay,” she says, shaking her head and wiping her hands vigorously on her apron. “I am an Englishwoman still.”
His smile disappears, and he bends to speak into her ear. “Do not fear this. he says “It is your path to safety. You are strong and clever. If you can bring yourself to discard some of your English notions, you will flourish, I have no doubt.”

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown

Flight of the Sparrow is a re-telling about Mary Rowlandson, a woman who was kidnapped by a local Native American tribe in 1675 and, upon her ransom to the English, wrote a narrative of her time in captivity. In Flight of the Sparrow, Mary’s life from her kidnapping to her second marriage is re-imagined.

I should preface this review by saying first that while I had read Mary Rowlandson’s narrative in high school, I did not recognize the name when I chose Flight of the Sparrow or when I started reading, so while I knew the basics of the story from the summary, I did not know many of the details, and I had to go back and re-read the original narrative to feel like I had a proper understanding of the true story. While I do not feel as though the source material has to be referenced for the reading of Amy Belding Brown’s novel, I do think it helps enlighten her perspective, as this perspective was my biggest struggle with the book. It is written in the first person past tense, speaking to the reader directly from Mary Rowlandson’s words. I normally do not have trouble with this perspective, but as the author does her very best to keep Mary’s perspective true to her time, I feel as though this novel likely alienates many readers. Mary Rowlandson was a New England Puritan in the 1600s, and as such, the character in the novel expresses strong opinions about God and faith and, most significantly, the Native Americans with whom she stays for three months. I have to admit that while I understand the goal of the author is to give us Mary Rowlandson’s thoughts directly in her words, I feel that the message of the novel – delivered to us through Mary’s realization that Native Americans are no different from her and in many ways have less constraining, more loving relationships – would have been easier to receive if there had been a narrator to distance the reader from Mary’s ignorance. Of course, the racism and ignorance of the Puritans is nothing that hasn’t been seen before, but the most cringe-worthy moment for me was towards the end: Mary describes a tribe as having been destroyed, with nearly all its members killed. Not only is this distinctly untrue (there are still living tribe members), but it is directly harmful to Native Americans today. Many assume that Native Americans are primarily a thing of the past, which minimizes native culture as well as native struggles, making it more difficult for tribes to flourish in today’s society. Mary’s aside later that “perhaps they can rise from the ashes” does not actually help that case – it just reiterates that she believes them all to be defeated.

That being said, I wanted to read a story about life in America in the 1600s, and this book is certainly that. While the deeply ingrained racism of the novel’s characters is unacceptable for our time, it was quite normal for theirs, and the setting and characters were nothing if not realistic. And let me reiterate that the message of the novel was condemnation of this racism. In addition, the novel spends a good deal of time describing the suffering of New England tribes, as well as the unforgivable violence done to them, and while I knew some of the generalities, I did not know details. I definitely feel that for a Thanksgiving read, this novel is honest and may open some eyes. Many still believe in the popular American narrative of pilgrims and “Indian braves” feasting together to welcome the pilgrims to America, but this novel tells the truth of it: there was a great deal of murder and theft of food and persons. Native Americans and pilgrims both were captured and sold into slavery, and Mary Rowlandson was, frankly, fortunate to have been returned to her family in such a short time (only three months!) with so little injury. James the Printer, who actually is named in the real Mary Rowlandson narrative, is also allowed to frankly speak for the local tribes, and his opinions are not idealized. By the end of the novel, he condemns Mary, and expresses displeasure at the work he must do, wishing to return to his children but knowing that his wish is improbable. The image we receive of James is that of a man who has been cast out of the comfortable life he lived, and dwells among a people that will not accept him. He describes himself as neither English nor native, and this question of identity, echoed in Mary’s own discomfort after her return to Puritan life, is definitely an interesting question that the book attempts to address.

In all, I would rate Flight of the Sparrow a 6 out of 10. The plot was engaging enough to hold my attention, but the racist perspective of the main character tied with the slow ending made it difficult to reach the meaning of the book itself. Still, readers that enjoy historical fiction might enjoy the realism of the setting and the plot, and anyone that has read the initial Mary Rowlandson narrative might enjoy this re-telling.

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