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Recently, writers are turning to increasingly creative modes of addressing the silences, gaping voids and smaller concealments that plague our historical record. Historical fiction, in its unconstrained ability to imagine and fill these gaps, has emerged as a critical part of the cross-disciplinary project of historical resuscitation and repair.

In her new novel, BEHELD, author TaraShea Nesbit embarks on a project in this mode of recuperative historical fabrication. Using whispers left behind by the archive as impetus for creative speculation, she weaves together the voices, both remembered and imagined, of two actual historical characters to tell the story of the first murder in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Drawn to “the omission of the lives of women in accounts from the seventeenth century,” Nesbit reframes the mythic story of the Puritans from the perspectives of two differently situated, but nevertheless strikingly similar, women: Alice Bradford, the second wife of Plymouth’s Governor William Bradford, and Eleanor Billington, a former indentured servant and wife of the town rabble-rouser. Through a delicate reimagining of the lives of these individuals, whose subjectivities have been erased by the annals of history, Nesbit reconstitutes the mythological tale of America’s earliest settlers, creating an affecting story that exposes the hypocrisy and violence of this renowned originary settlement.

"Nesbit vividly resuscitates the female experience of Plymouth --- reanimating voices lost in traditional historical accounts while simultaneously showing how these voices were questioned, critiqued, repudiated and ultimately silenced."

The tale of the Puritans and their journey to find religious freedom in the new world is often taught to school children as an idealized story of conviction and integrity, but Nesbit renders a different Plymouth. BEHELD opens 10 years after the colonists have first settled in Massachusetts. The land is barren, and the settlers suffer tremendous debt. Above all, the community faces burgeoning friction between the Puritans and the Anglican indentured servants, who both accompanied and enabled the colonizers’ journey. When a new settler arrives to claim his plot of land, the tensions reach a fever pitch and a shocking murder is committed.

Although the ostensible core of the novel’s plot is this act of violence and the subsequent trial, Nesbit is less intent on building a compelling mystery than she is in lyrically exposing the hypocrisy of the Puritans’ superiority and their cruelty masquerading as justice. The book is rife with scenes of grim violence that is posited by the Puritans as righteous and moral: Eleanor Billington is stripped naked and whipped through the town; a Native American’s bloody head is proudly displayed on a pole; a young woman is raped by her owner's brother and later killed when she is found to be with child.

Although Nesbit shows violence endemic throughout the colony, she is most interested in imagining the subjectivities of Plymouth’s women, who are subject to both institutional cruelty and the gendered hazards of everyday life. Protagonists Alice and Eleanor structurally lead exceedingly different lives --- the former is imbued with a degree of power allocated to her by her husband’s status, and the latter is the object of gleeful scorn by the townspeople. Yet both are hopelessly dependent upon, and violated by, their husbands. Alice is beaten when she oversteps, and Eleanor, though in a surprisingly equitable sexual partnership with her husband, is ultimately betrayed by him and brutally punished for it. In stilted and formal language, written in a somewhat successful emulation of the 17th-century vernacular, Nesbit richly renders these female characters’ subjectivities as they endure, and occasionally transgress, the stringent bounds of their society.

In BEHELD, Nesbit vividly resuscitates the female experience of Plymouth --- reanimating voices lost in traditional historical accounts while simultaneously showing how these voices were questioned, critiqued, repudiated and ultimately silenced. But she doesn’t accept that they have been truly silenced. They are there if you look for them, in the whispers and traces left by the historical archive, waiting for a little bit of imagination to do its work.

Reviewed by Tanya Bush on April 3, 2020

by TaraShea Nesbit

  • Publication Date: March 17, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 163557322X
  • ISBN-13: 9781635573220