BOOKS : REAL LIVES : Savage messiahs

THE UNREDEEMED CAPTIVE: A Family Story from Early America by John Demos, Papermac pounds 10
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"MOST of all, I wanted to write a story," says John Demos in the preface to this book. And he does, with all the panache of an accomplished novelist. Narrative history was, he writes, in "deep eclipse" when he was learning to become a historian. But from the evidence of this book, along with the recent work of Simon Schama and Natalie Zemon Davis, we can safely say that the story in history has finally being reclaimed. The use of diaries and letters, combined with imaginative interpretations of official documents, is putting the texture and human detail back into our understanding of the past.

At 4:00am on 23 February 1704, a band of French soldiers and their Indian allies attacked the New England outpost town of Deerfield, Massachusetts. They broke down doors, brained babies and burned houses. They also carried away 100 captives, among them the Rev John Williams, his wife and children. They were led on a terrifying 300-mile march through the wilderness to Canada during which many more lost their lives either from fatigue or from an Indian hatchet. Williams' wife, who stumbled and fell into a river, was quickly killed by a blow to the head. "Who can know what sorrows pierced our souls," wrote Williams later.

Rev Williams himself was "redeemed" by the French governor two and a half years later, but meanwhile his children were dispersed, some sent to live with the "Popish" French, others with the "Savage" Indians. He was eventually able to win back his two boys, but his daughter, Eunice, who was seven when the raid occurred, stayed firmly in the hands of the Kahnawake, a Mohawk Iroquois tribe. He was told that the Indians "would rather part with their hearts" than give up his daughter.

For Williams, a prominent preacher and a stalwart Puritan, his daughter's captivity was both a spiritual and an emotional trial; it became his life's obsession. Years later an English trader who was sent to meet Eunice unsuccessfully pleaded with her to return (their documented encounter is haunting and deeply affecting). In a bold stroke which would fail in less adept hands, Demos moves from historian to novelist as he successfully re-imagines what lay behind Eunice's rejection of her father and his culture.

Williams sets out for Canada again, and this time he does see his daughter. She is now Catholic and married to an Indian; she can no longer speak English. "She is obstinately resolved to live and dye here, and will not so much as give me one pleasant look," Williams writes, the bitterness seeping through the cracks of his conventional Puritan restraint.

Williams leads a full and important life, but dies without having managed to redeem his daughter. His son Stephen does renew contact with Eunice. His diary survives, and through it we glimpse their eventual meeting and their slow and guarded reconciliation - Eunice, her Indian husband, and later her children visited him, but they were never able to converse directly.

This is the narrative core of the book, but it is set into a finely researched and detailed context of life in 18th-century New England. Some of the most stunning insights come in Demos's later chapters about the religious and family practices of the Kahnawakes, once again drawn from first-hand accounts.

This is history deep in the American grain. American culture has always been obsessed with the contact between the white man and "the savage", but Demos pushes our understanding one stage further by evocatively entering into the American Indian landscape through the circumstances of Eunice's captivity. From her story, we can just about glimpse the other side.