"In This Strange Soil" is sure to please and interest all readers of history and in particular those fascinated by the relations between the Native Americans and the early settlers of the country. Jillian Hensley has taken a real event, which she meticulously researched, and has written a work of fiction which brings it to life. The author tells us in a forward that at the time she was living in Westborough, Massachusetts (known as Chauncy in colonial days) she often walked by a plaque at the entrance of the High School memorializing the abduction of four young boys by the Mohawk Indians. Haunted by this story, she began to research the early history of the town and the Rice family. A fifth child, too young to withstand the arduous journey north into Canada, was killed.
The story takes place in 1704, a dangerous time in the early settlement of Massachusetts. Similar and more familiar raids were also made on Deerfield and Lancaster and these stories have been told in New England history. Hensley uses as her format a series of letters between French brothers of nobility, one (Etienne) an army officer and the other a Jesuit priest (Fr. Vincent de Surville) who has been sent to New France in Canada to convert the Indians and pastor the settlers. It is the time of the long war between England and France, waged on two continents, and in American known as Queen Anne's War, part of the collective French and Indian Wars.
While this is a short novel, there is a wealth of accurate information about the relations between the captives, Indians, and the French in Canada. Two of the Rice boys Timothy and the younger Silas, become close to their Indian families and elect to stay with the tribe, even after their father Edmond, tries to redeem them in a legal agreement with the French. It was not unknown at the time for a number of captives, including women who chose to remain with their native families. In general the women had more freedom than they did with their Puritan brethren. As a group those who chose to stay were known as "Unredeemed Captives." Timothy eventually becomes a tribal leader and converting to Catholicism. Father de Serville lives a life that would be hard to imagine for his noble family back in France.
I recommend this book to all readers and reading groups who are interested in early American history. For those who read "Champlain's Dream" (reviewed in an earlier blog), this is an arresting companion to David Hackett Fischer's in-depth history of New France.