A fictional reconstruction of Roger Williams’ fight (and flight) for religious freedom in 17th-century England and New England.
In this historical novel, debut author Irizarry traces the steps of the founder of Providence from his childhood in England to his life in Massachusetts and his eventual travel to Rhode Island to escape religious persecution. (The novel chronicles many people and places, but Williams’ life is the thread that ties the story together.) As a smart lad in London, he learns a secret form of shorthand to carry messages from imprisoned religious separatists and, later, to record parliamentary proceedings for a London lawyer and mentor, Sir Edward Coke. Williams grows up to become a minister, hoping someday to preach Christianity to Native Americans. Although he finds himself in opposition to the ruling religious and civil powers, he learns to make connections and compromises. In 1631, he migrates to Massachusetts with his wife, but his religious beliefs soon put him in conflict with Puritan orthodoxy. He flees a court summons, escaping into the frozen wild, where he’s saved by Indians. Eventually, he reaches Narragansett Bay, where he’d purchased the use of land from the Narragansett tribe. Other religious dissidents join him and help found alternative faiths in a community based on religious tolerance. The book ends with an imaginary Q&A between a 21st-century interlocutor and Williams about modern subjects, such as gay marriage. This well-researched novel provides fine portraits of Williams and his contemporaries, and of a crucial but often overlooked chapter in American history. It offers multiple viewpoints—including those of a Puritan, a dissident, and a Narragansett, among others—and some powerful passages: “We are the people of the ages,” a young Nipmuc brave tells Roger. “We came before, and we will stay after.” However, the book could have used more and better physical descriptions of its people and places. The prose also has other weaknesses, including needless explanation (“This was not a good situation,” the narrator notes after John Winthrop the Younger is captured by Pequots) and sometimes-anachronistic narrative language and dialogue—“How’s the missus?” Williams asks a friend—that detract from the otherwise authentic-sounding historical tone.
An uneven novel that nevertheless provides an accessible introduction to an overlooked hero and the birth of religious freedom in the North American colonies.