Beheld by TaraShea Nesbit

This is another great reminder that it’s not a good idea to box yourself out of entire genres. “I’m not a historical fiction person” is definitely something I would have said in the past, and yet, when I end up reading historical fiction for one reason or another, I end up loving it. I adore Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy – so much so that I am saving the third book like it’s a fancy dessert. The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George kept me completely enthralled. Ian McGuire’s The North Water was an absolutely thrilling, eerie read. And, once again, with Beheld, a brooding cinematic work of a novel, I have proven that I may be, in fact, “a historical fiction person.” 

If it’s a well-written book, with complex and well-developed characters, and a compelling story – well, it doesn’t matter what genre it is. How long will it take me to learn this lesson?

image from amazon.com

Mini Plot Summary: For ten years, the surviving passengers of the Mayflower have carved out a life in Plymouth, Massachusetts – though the community’s financial and social stability remains shaky. Peopled with those who made the harrowing trip overseas to find very different types of community and freedom, the colony finds itself deeply divided. As a ship approaches, bringing new colonists from England, the tensions between the religious puritans and the “outsiders” comes to a breaking point, resulting in murder. This book explores this pivotal crime (as well as the tumultuous early years of the Plymouth settlement leading up to it) from varying perspectives – including those of two women, one a high-status puritan, the other a former indentured servant. 

What I Liked About this Book: My favorite aspect of this novel was the female perspective Nesbit brought to this typically male-dominated story of the early days of the Plymouth colony. We get to see through the eyes of two women: Alice Bradford, wife of Plymouth’s puritan governor; and Eleanor Billington, a former indentured servant who, along with her husband John, has finally earned freedom and a plot of land. Nesbit masterfully created very different voices for each character, so that they felt vivid and well-rounded. The women’s lives and their standing in the community are so different from one another, and I loved getting that multi-faceted view of the colony and its goings on, and learning about each woman’s motivations and how they saw one another.

I loved Nesbit’s use of language. I am familiar with her poetry, so I wasn’t surprised to find that her prose was often lyrical and rich with description. There was one chapter – titled “Nature” – that really sang, for me, with poetic beauty. Unlike with some lyrical prose, I never felt that hers veered into “flowery” or “overwrought.” It was just lovely and additive to the story, and, like any good language, helped me see the world in a different way. 

As with her debut The Wives of Los Alamos, the research that Nesbit obviously undertook in writing this book blew me away. To understand a real, historical event so clearly and so well as to be able to write a convincing but fictional account of it takes tremendous skill. In her Afterword, where Nesbit addresses some of the language choices she made in the story, she notes some of the resources she consulted, and it was clear that a) what she mentioned was only the tip of the iceberg and b) she took great pains to get all sides of the story, not just the (white, male) vantage point we typically encounter. Throughout the book, I came across little details that were so small as to almost be throw-aways… but they betrayed exactly how closely she’d studied the source material. I found these details fascinating and so charming. For instance, when Alice is about to disembark from her ship, after traveling to Plymouth from England, she says, “I wiped my face with a few drops of beer.” How the first winter, the colonists propped their dead against trees and furnished them with muskets, to make their numbers seem larger. Or, the fact that the women in the colony baked bread in communal ovens. Embroidering her story with these threads of historical knowledge made the characters and their experiences come so alive for me.

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: I wish there had been more backstory about the Eleanor Billington character. We got a ton about Alice’s life before Plymouth, and I would have liked to know more about Eleanor, too. 

And this is totally picky but I did not love the old-timey terminology. I am sure, based on Nesbit’s extensive research, she used these terms in exactly the way people spoke at the time. But reading “doth” and “thou” and “spoketh” kept bringing me out of the story. I know! I know! So picky! So inconsequential to the narrative! And yet, it’s one thing I didn’t like, so I am sharing it here.

Should You Read This Book? If you enjoy historical fiction, or stories centered around women, or female perspectives on events that we often only encounter through a male viewpoint, this book is definitely for you. But also, if you like beautiful language and intriguing, complicated characters, you should read it. The themes of this book – motherhood and desire to belong and fear of the unknown – are so universal and Nesbit handles them so well. And I loved how Nesbit underscored the underlying tensions of the colonists by creating a brooding, troubled atmosphere for them to move in. This is exactly the kind of historical fiction that draws me in and makes me want to learn more.

This post is part of the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge sponsored by The Intrepid Reader.

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