Friday, May 15, 2015

Insubordinate Spirit (Missy Wolfe)

Insubordinate Spirit
Missy Wolfe
Globe Pequot Press
Nonfiction, History
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: With religious and political tensions reaching dangerous levels in mid-1600's England, the persecuted Pilgrims, led by John Winthrop Sr., set out to the New World to found a colony rooted in their own beliefs. They thought they could create a utopian society where God's grace would at last shine favorably upon them above all others - but found themselves in the middle of more problems than they bargained for, with native troubles and nearby Dutch traders and schisms within their own ranks. Into this mess traveled one Elizabeth Winthrop, young bride (and soon widow) of John's most wayward son. As she struggled to raise a family on the edge of untamed frontier, colonial America reached a pivotal moment in its political and religious history. Using recently-rediscovered correspondences and period documents, author Missy Wolfe examines the life and times of Elizabeth and other prominent figures in 1600's America.

REVIEW: This book was seriously misrepresented by the Barnes and Noble description. It made Insubordinate Spirit sound like a biography of Elizabeth Winthrop, with some background on the era and region. A biography, I figured, might make history seem more personable, giving me a character to follow through a time period that, as an American, I probably should know more about. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a dry, meandering narrative with all the personability of a textbook, awash with names and dates and various locations and native tribes that I couldn't begin to keep straight... in which Elizabeth herself really only figures into maybe a fourth, at most, of the text. Wolfe couldn't even elaborate on matters with direct impact on her life. Her second husband, Robert Feake, suffered from a degenerative mental illness that "defies modern diagnosis"... and apparently modern description, as Wolfe can't even hint as to what, exactly, the symptoms were. Did he hear voices? Grow abusive? Paint himself pink and glue mice to his head? How am I supposed to relate to this woman and her struggles if I don't even know what she's struggling with? Elsewhere, Wolfe recounts detailed descriptions of the torture deaths of Native Americans, so the problem isn't an author's inability to add detail to her narrative. Beneath the leaden cloak of names and events were occasional glimmers of interest and insight, but these were quickly smothered as the book wandered off to some other person or place, sometimes with little seeming connection to what came before and always keeping me at arm's length, if not further. In the end, this just felt too much like a textbook for me to enjoy; sure, there's information here, but it's the kind of book one picks up to research an essay, not to read for pleasure.

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