Massachusetts by Nancy Zaroulis

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This is one of those Edward Rutherfurd/James Michener-type books which tell the history of a country, a city, or, in this case, an American state through the lives of several generations of a small number of families. In this book, it’s just one family – the Revells, one of whom arrives in America on the Mayflower. It’s always tricky to know what to say about books like this, because only so much can be fitted in and we all have our own ideas about what the most important events in history are. It’s very interesting as a history of Massachusetts, but I did find it quite insular – neither world war got more than a passing mention, the Civil War didn’t feature very much because there was no actual fighting in the area, and don’t even get me started on one of the characters claiming that the Industrial Revolution started in Massachusetts – and it might have been better to have included different families from different backgrounds rather than just the one. Gold star, however, for the focus on female characters, which is unusual in these types of sagas.

The Revells do the American Dream thing, and become one of Boston’s leading families. We follow them from the Mayflower, on to the founding of Boston, and its early days under strict Puritaan control – we see the persecution of anyone whose religious views didn’t suit the Puritans, and we see one of them falling victim to the Salem Witch Trials. Massachusetts is such a paradox – in the forefront of the fights for Abolitionism and women’s suffrage, both of which are covered in the books, and yet with such a history of religious persecution and, well into the 20th century, religious and ethnic discrimination.

The book doesn’t shy away from the negatives. The Sacco and Vanzetti trial, which saw two Italian anarchists executed for a murder of which they may well have been innocent, is covered in detail. We also see the struggles of the Shaughnessys, a working-class Irish-American family, against poverty and discrimination – although the focus is always on the Revells.

This was published in 1991, before there was so much emphasis on “diversity”; but books like this do usually include a number of different families. I assume from her surname that the author, like a lot of people in Massachusetts, has Greek heritage: there are no Greek Americans here. Sympathy is shown for Native Americans, but they only feature when they’re kidnapping one of the early Revell women, and there is only one black character, the maid of the woman who’s kidnapped, in the entire book. It’s made clear that the discrimination against Catholics and Jews and, in the early days, Quakers is wrong, but we don’t really hear their voices, except to some extent with the Shaughnessys. There’s also sympathy for the industrial workers and their attempts to form unions and win better working conditions, but, again, we don’t really hear their voices, only those of the wealthy Revell who owns the mills, and another Revell who’s reporting on it all.

On the other hand, this isn’t a textbook, so maybe I’m being unfair. If it’d been called “The Revells of Massachusetts” instead of just “Massachusetts”, I wouldn’t be criticising – it’s only because the title suggests that it’s telling the history of a state, not that of one family. And, as I’ve said, it’s not as if it doesn’t show both negative and positive aspects of the history of Massachusetts. All sorts of things are included. There’s quite a lot about transcendentalism. And it ends with an environmentalist campaign.

It’s pretty much all set in Massachusetts. We don’t follow the characters anywhere else. The Civil War doesn’t really feature very much, because there was no fighting in or around Boston. However, there is loads and loads about the Revolution. The Revells are in there at the Boston Tea Party, and they play major roles during the War of Independence. Let’s just say that that’s very much told from an American point of view. But the War of 1812 isn’t mentioned very much, and the two world wars and Vietnam only feature in passing.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this book. The characters are quite interesting and there’s a lot of information about the history of Massachusetts, especially Boston. I can’t fault the history, and, apart from the part about the War of Independence, it isn’t biased. And it was great to see so many strong female characters. But I’d like to have seen some different families – maybe a poorer family who’d also come over the Mayflower but not succeeded economically, for a start. And, whilst I fully appreciate that the book was about Massachusetts, I think that having all the action in Massachusetts meant that some crucial events, notably the Civil War, didn’t get the attention they deserved.

However, despite the moaning (sorry!), I did enjoy this – it packed a huge amount into 700-ish pages, and it was never boring. Books like this can be a really good way of learning more about a place.

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