A woman’s life in dangerous times.
In 1697, Hannah Duston, a Haverhill, Massachusetts, wife and mother, was abducted by Abenaki Indians and forcibly marched north toward French-occupied Canada to be ransomed. Her week-old infant was brutally murdered during the march, other captives were beaten to death, and the survivors were starved and abused. Desperate, Duston managed to take revenge, slaying not only her captors, but squaws and children, as well, hacking off scalps for monetary reward. Journalist and fiction writer Atkinson (Writing/Boston Univ.; Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man, 2012, etc.) narrates Duston’s story in gory detail, aiming to convey “the moral truth of what happened” and allow readers to judge whether Duston’s act of savagery was justified. Her contemporaries had no doubt: Cotton Mather wrote a sympathetic account; Maryland’s governor sent Duston an appreciative gift of three pewter chargers; in recognition of her valor and the scalps, the General Court of Massachusetts awarded her 50 pounds. Atkinson implies his own admiration, as well, in presenting Duston’s experience “through the lens of the prejudices, preconceptions, and preoccupations of the seventeenth-century colonial settlers and the Indians.” Although he acknowledges that Indians had suffered “decades of insult and abuse,” were driven from their land, “preyed upon by corrupt traders and swindlers, [and] demeaned by colonial authorities,” he still depicts them as terrorizing savages: marauding, whooping with “devilish noise,” ruthlessly murdering with axes, clubs, hatchets, pikes, knives, and rifles given to them by the French. The French, greedy and bellicose, inflamed Indian hatred of the colonists and disrupted their traditional hunting and gathering by seducing them into the lucrative fur trade. The competition for animal hides, Atkinson maintains, pitted tribe against tribe.
Drawing on archival documents and contemporary and recent histories, Atkinson has written a compelling narrative, but his reprisal of 17th-century prejudices makes for discomfiting reading.