'Unredeemed' a captivating journey

June 30, 1994|By Bruce Clayton | Bruce Clayton,Special to The Sun

For almost three centuries, Eunice Williams' story has been a tantalizing historical footnote.

In 1703, 7-year-old Eunice, daughter of a prominent New England cleric, was abducted by marauding Indians. She, her family and scores of residents were captured in a bloody raid on Deerfield, Mass., and carried off into French Canada. "Massacre," the locals cried, mourning the 50 murdered.

Over time, the captives returned -- some escaped, other were bartered away, some were released. But not Eunice. She stayed, voluntarily, never to return except for brief visits. When she died at age 90, family and friends still called her "poor Eunice."

Never mind that she spoke only the language of the Kanhawake (a splinter tribe of the Mohawk), had married one of her captors, raised a family, embraced her adopted tribe's Catholicism, and carried herself proudly as an Indian. How could it be, the New England faithful lamented, that one of their own remained "unredeemed," both "savage" and "heathen"?

Such lamentations are refreshingly absent from John Demos' "story." He aims neither to pity nor censure anyone; he never assumes Eunice should have returned. He writes with empathy, hoping to understand.

But can her story be told fully -- and if so, how? She left virtually no tracks for the historian. The surviving sources -- copious diaries, travelers' accounts, sermons and memorials -- reveal little about the world Eunice chose. Wisely, Dr. Demos attempts not a biography of someone hidden in the shadows of history, but a re-creation of a conflict in cultures. The result is a brilliantly imagined portrait of a native culture that was far more complex, civilized and fulfilling (particularly for an 18th century woman) than such labels as "savage" or "primitive" suggest.

Readers of Dr. Demos' earlier works -- particularly "Entertaining Satan," his acclaimed book on the witchcraft trials -- know that the Yale historian understands Puritan New England and has the master scholar's ability to stand back and see with a fresh eye.

"Some things we have to imagine," he writes, and in lesser hands such admissions are red flags to readers fearful of fiction posing as history. But his imaginings are perceptive and so rooted in an absorption in his limited sources that they enlarge the historical record.

"The Unredeemed Captive" is one of the most intimate, stylishly written historical works I've read in some time. It's much more personal, and less analytical, than Dr. Demos' previous works. In this new book, he often writes lyrically, letting his ear, not the schoolmarm's rules, guide his hand. He describes a Kanhawake journey: "Over the river, on the ice. Across a mile of meadowland, ghostly and white."

Such poetic writing is intended to induce us to feel history, to inch closer to a real understanding of the past. To establish rapport, he adopts a tone of familiarity; he speaks directly, and frequently, to the reader: "We must draw back a little, to set the scene," he announces, or concedes that a "source invites us to look further, to think harder."

On many occasions Dr. Demos sounds like the controversial, contemporary master stylist Claude Manceron, grand chronicler of the French Revolution. Dr. Demos is never as outrageous, breezy or opinionated as Mr. Manceron (who once wrote that a priest was "so hot in pursuit of women that his cassock's on fire") but like many other American historians of Colonial New England, he has been influenced by French social historians.

Like the French (and the late Southern historian W. J. Cash), Dr. Demos feels free to interject himself into the text, cozying close to the reader. "Shall we call it a bribe?" he asks nonchalantly after recording matter-of-factly that Eunice and her husband were pointedly reminded of her unclaimed inheritance.

Dry-as-dust pedagogues who could no more write an exciting sentence than learn to hit a curve ball may cry foul when they read "The Unredeemed Captive." Pay them no mind. What they call audacity is originality; if they decry mere "style" (and thereby manage to imply that obfuscation is the goal), remember that with Dr. Demos, style and content are one.

His burnished prose is integral to his purpose of creating a mood, an emotion that shoves the reader from yawning passivity into a feeling of being inside history. Dr. Demos takes an old, seemingly inconsequential story and breathes life into it, forcing us to reconsider something we knew -- but didn't.

Dr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of History at Allegheny College and the author of "W. J. Cash: A Life."


Title: "The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America"

Author: John Demos

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 316 pages, $25

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