Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower

Today features my friend and guest blogger, Peter Arenstam. Peter's new book, The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower, is just out from History Press.

At first blush, themes touched on in Michelle’s blog and those of my new book, The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower, would seem to have no common ground. Michelle’s passion is teaching kids about nature, expanding their horizons so that they come to know the world and its cultures beyond their own. "Muck about. Meet the locals. Expand your world." Three phrases, commands almost, that also very succinctly sum up the well-known pilgrim story as told through the eyes of the mastiff Grace, the main character of my book.

The pilgrims were very much “mucking about” in several senses of the word. Most of the passengers who boarded Mayflower in 1620 for the now famous voyage were traveling neophytes. The had little experience will sailing ships, dealing with the endless details of purchasing supplies for a new colony, and the machinations of business men and their dealings. Leaders like Cushman, Martin, Bradford, and Carver were certainly mucking about. They would get bogged down, have to slog through and ultimately get a little dirty learning the ways of the business world.

Having safely made the ocean crossing, the pilgrims were still very much mucking about. They spent nearly a month, in a very literal sense, tromping about the wilds of Cape Cod looking for a settlement location. With an intended destination of the mouth of the Hudson River, the pilgrims were very much out of their comfort zone. They explored by foot through streams, over dunes, and across low tide mud flats. They explored by shallop, (an open rowing and sailing boat), across Cape Cod Bay and ultimately into what is now Plymouth in the midst of a snowstorm.

Although their primary focus was on finding a place to settle, they gathered information about the natural world. They mention the abundance of whales and fish in the bay. They find caches of seed corn, evidence of a healthy growing environment. They marvel at the flowing fresh water streams and the oaks, pines, juniper, sassafras, and other sweet woods growing right down to the sea itself. The kind of observations any budding observer of the natural world would be proud to record.

“Meet the locals,” the pilgrims did indeed. The first encounter of the pilgrims with the native populations was not as friendly as the image of Indians teaching pilgrims to plant corn with fish we all learned in grade school would suggest. Several times prior to 1620, other Europeans had touched at Cape Cod. Their visits resulted in the kidnapping of over twenty Natives from the Nauset area alone. When the pilgrims arrived, these events were no doubt still fresh in the minds of the local population. Very early one morning the pilgrim exploration party was awoken by shouts of natives followed by arrows flying into the pilgrim encampment. Pilgrim men shot off their muskets, shouted their own war cries and hurried away in the shallop with no injuries recorded on either side. It is truly a testament to the individuals on both sides that a treaty was later hammered out that provided peace to the early colony, at least for the first fifty years or so.

There can be no question that the pilgrims expanded their horizons. For many of the passengers, the voyage to North America was a voyage to a new world. They had to leave behind the comforts of family, familiar surroundings and the security of knowing what to expect from each new day. In New Plimoth, every day brought new experiences, new understanding of their surroundings and the realizations that without continuing to learn and grow their very existence would be in jeopardy. These are lessons, Michelle’s blog, Polliwog on Safari, continues to teach today.

Peter Arenstam was born on a farm in western Massachusetts and grew up near the ocean in Plymouth. He works at the living history museum Plimoth Plantation where he cares for the reproduction ship Mayflower II. He is author of the four book series, Nicholas, A Massachusetts Tale, published by Mitten Press, and co-author of National Geographic's, Mayflower 1620: A New Look at a Pilgrim Voyage. His most recent book, The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower, published by The History Press, was just released. Peter is currently pursuing an MFA in writing for children at Simmons College in Boston, MA.

From Michelle: The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower is perfectly suited to readers in grades 3-5. For those who live in Massachusetts, it dovetails nicely with grade 3 Social Studies curriculum. Beautiful full-color illustrations by Karen Busch Holman bring Peter's wonderful words to life.

For those who live in eastern Massachusetts or may be vacationing in Plymouth, "America's Hometown," please come to Peter's book launch party. It's being held July 28th, at Mayflower II in Plymouth, MA from 1-3 pm. I'll be there with my kids. How about you?

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