After reading the comments on Christine Blevins's guest post, most of which dealt with American history, I've been thinking of historical fiction about my own home state -- and how very few examples there are. One of my favorite settings is colonial New England, but how many historical novels set in early Connecticut can you name?
Aside from the children's novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond, that is... this is the edition I read in elementary school.
Anya Seton's The Winthrop Woman, about a historical woman who was once an early resident of New Haven Colony, is another. But I wasn't able to think of many more. With this in mind, I picked up the 1976 paperback edition of Jean Clark's Untie the Winds with interest, despite the bodice-buster artwork and back cover blurb which promised a story about: "The ravishing rebel. The tender teacher. Passion and principle." Ugh.
What can I say, it was the 1970s, but this mainstream historical novel is horribly served by its packaging. The red square is not a weird variation of the scarlet "A," I should add, but a price sticker I didn't remove for fear it would damage the book!The title, also, seemed to be one of those abstract romancey statements, something that sounds good on paper but has no real meaning. How wrong I was. The line was originally spoken by Macbeth to the three witches in Shakespeare's play: "Though you untie the winds and let them fight against the churches..."
Fittingly, Untie the Winds tells the story of one woman, Ann Eaton, and her fight against the Puritan church and the local justice system in New Haven Colony in the 1630s and 1640s. Ann Lloyd Yale Eaton was a real person, an Englishwoman who became the wife of the colony's first magistrate and governor, Theophilus Eaton. Through her son from her first marriage, Ann became the grandmother of Elihu Yale, the philanthropist after whom Yale College (now University) was named. It's nowhere near a historical romance, and in fact there's barely a single love scene in the book, despite what the back cover would have you think about her sensuous nature and her illicit romance with lusty schoolteacher Ezekial Cheever.
While focusing on Ann and the problems her philosophical rebellion caused within her marriage, Clark establishes the political and historical context by alternating between the viewpoints of five different characters. These are Ann herself; her husband Theophilus; Rev. John Davenport, spiritual leader of the colony; Ezekial Cheever, a teacher who expresses public support for Ann's unorthodox views; and Lurinda Collings, the Eatons' indentured servant (a fictional character).
Ann is a strong, principled woman who loves her husband but refuses to tolerate injustice, such as the Colony's execution of a Quinnipiac Indian for a crime committed out of its jurisdiction and without benefit of a trial by jury. She walks out of the meetinghouse during Rev. Davenport's service as a protest against infant baptisms, as babies are too young to decide for themselves about Church membership. Her refusal to confess her sins and repent of her actions leads to her excommunication in 1644, something her husband does nothing to prevent.
Already middle-aged with grown children when the novel begins in 1638, upon her ship's arrival in the land of the Quinnipiacs, she's not a typical historical novel heroine, but her story is a compelling one. Through her eyes and others, we see early New Haven take shape from a settlement in the wilderness along the Connecticut shoreline to a lively colony, based in Biblical principles, that steadily grew as it annexed nearby towns (called "plantations") and formed a united confederation with other British colonies in New England.
From what I've been able to discern, Ann's story as presented here is grounded in historical fact, with the probable exception of her unconsummated love affair with Cheever (a very minor part of the book). Even the appearance of a phantom ship off the coast in 1646, an event made famous by Longfellow's poem, is recorded as part of New Haven history and legend. Ann's life doesn't always follow a dramatic arc (most people's lives don't), which detracts from the narrative tension at times. After her excommunication, the focus moves from her to Lurinda's romantic escapades, which are completely fictional and not nearly as interesting to read about.
Overall, Untie the Winds is well worth picking up if you like this period of history. Despite being from Connecticut, I knew next to nothing about the New Haven colony beforehand but have been happily googling for information about it since I turned the final page. A clearly written, fascinating novel about the founding of one of the lesser-known English colonies in America, one woman's brave dissent against Puritan theocracy, and the price she paid for it.