Does the name Miles Standish call to mind junior high and the besotted Pilgrim from Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish? That broken-hearted Mayflower folk hero who lost his true love Priscilla to John Alden? TaraShea Nesbit’s historically accurate novel, Beheld (Bloomsbury, Mar. 2020), reveals a less romantic version of the defender of Plymouth Colony: a heartless, mean-spirited tiny bully who killed preemptively and was known as Captain Shrimp.
Beheld tells the true story of the first execution of a white settler for murdering a white settler in Plymouth Bay. It takes place in 1630, mostly on one very terrible day 10 years after the colonists first came ashore. They had sailed for the New World in 1620 to join the flourishing Virginia Colony but wound up on Cape Cod. Winter was setting in, and heading south was impossible, so they built one-room houses on the inhospitable land and made touchy peace with the Massachusett, Wampanoag, and Neponset tribes.
Half of the English died that first year. Nesbit establishes the quotidian of these brutal beginnings primarily with alternating first-person chapters. The dominant storytellers live yards from each other but are worlds apart. Alice is the privileged wife of William Bradford, the colony’s officious governor. Eleanor is married to the embittered John Billington. The Billingtons, reviled by the community, are whispered to be "the sign of Satan’s presence." They’re angry, these Billingtons. And who wouldn’t be? They served as indentured servants to the Bradfords and other colonists for seven merciless years, working off their Atlantic passage debt to the Puritans by "dumping out their shitty chamber pots, burying their dead," eating whatever scraps were tossed their way, and building the Bradfords’ homes before they could finish their own.
For all that hard work, the haves reward the have-nots with the least arable land and try to cheat them out of their allotted acres. Nesbit brilliantly captures the wrath between the classes and the irony of coming to a country in pursuit of religious freedom only to have the sanctimonious Puritans circumscribe the rights of the Anglicans. Expert at building tension, Nesbit has a deft way with sex scenes, too, which are made all the more erotic because of their restraint.
Nesbit, 38, is an assistant professor teaching fiction and nonfiction at Miami University of Ohio. She earned her PhD in creative writing and literature at the University of Denver in 2015. During her second year there she completed her first novel, The Wives of Los Alamos (a New York Times Book Review Critics’ Pick), published in 2014 by Bloomsbury.
To find an agent for Wives, Nesbit read the acknowledgments on the back pages of books she loved. "I got Julie Barer’s name from Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End," she says. "Both of our books were written in the first person plural, and I thought, ‘Oooooh, she’s probably great!’ " Nesbit sent her a query letter, and Barer, a founding partner of the Book Group, asked for pages. "Then we spoke on the phone, and I felt like she really got it. I really connected with her."
Nesbit lives in Oxford, Ohio, with her husband and two children. I tell her I was struck that each of her novels tells the story of an uprooted, disparate community as seen through the eyes of its powerless and accommodating women, and I ask if that was a specific interest of hers—the behind-the scenes people who are so often left out of the history books.
"It is," Nesbit says. "But I didn’t know that was going to be the thing that I’d be spending a lot of my time on."
To graduate, she was required to take a class in early American literature, which she did not want to take. "Then I read William Bradford’s book about the Mayflower Pilgrims (Of Plymouth Plantation), and there was an editor’s footnote saying that Bradford had left out much of the story. I wanted to know what he left out."
I ask Barer what drew her to Nesbit’s work: "I love historical fiction," she says. "I’m drawn to stories of women’s voices we haven’t heard before. History books talk about the men, but obviously behind those men there are the women making it possible. We don’t traditionally get to hear those stories. TaraShea is uncovering the private lives—things that we used to consider domestic—that are the backbone of society."
A six-city book tour is planned, along with trade and consumer advertising and a major book club marketing campaign with a reading group guide.
Nancy Miller, editor in-chief at Bloomsbury and Nesbit’s editor for both books, says she was "blown away by Beheld, because it feels very timely, even though it’s historical—just this question of who gets to tell our stories. She’s dealing with so many issues that we’re all faced with at the moment: justice, colonization and race, gender and class—they’re all touched on in this story."
Miller is spot-on about the timeliness of Beheld, especially regarding the treatment of women. If the #MeToo movement had existed in 1630, a lot of those Puritans would have wound up in the stocks.
This article has been corrected and edited for clarity.