Tuesday, May 03, 2011

In which I read Rebel Puritan, by Jo Ann Butler

Being a proud descendant of early New England troublemakers, I was pleased to come across a biographical novel about a woman fitting this description.

Jo Ann Butler's Rebel Puritan tells the story of her ancestor Herodias Long, who lived in 17th-century Rhode Island.  I read an excerpt on the author's website and knew I had to read the rest of the book.  Plus, "Scarlett O'Hara meets The Scarlet Letter" is one of the most irresistible taglines ever.

As a child in the Devon countryside, Herodias survives a bout of plague that kills her father and brother.  Her mother, finding her too difficult to manage, sends her off to London to be a servant to her aunt.  At thirteen she marries John Hicks, a man she barely knows, to escape a life of drudgery and flees with him to Massachusetts. She's too young to know better, alas, but feels she has no choice. The fledgling town of Weymouth finds itself divided by rival ministries, and the dispute leads her family to quit the strict Puritan church and move further south to Newport.

Herod is a strong young woman, choosing to befriend nonconformists like Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson despite John's disapproval.  How she grows into adulthood and raises her children while facing increasing abuse from her controlling husband — as documented in the historical record — forms the crux of an engrossing tale of endurance and triumph.  She finds herself obliged to live by society's rules until it becomes clear she no longer can.  Her moving story of women's immobility against colonial doctrine rings heartbreakingly true.

Along the way, the author fills us in on what life demanded of the early New England colonists — not just the religion and politics, but also the basics like building a suitable dwelling, growing food, making soap, and the need to rely on one's neighbors. Most colonial-era novels are set during the Salem witch trials or the pre-Revolutionary era, but here we're in newer territory: the 1630s and '40s, the first few decades of settlement, when towns were being carved out of the wilderness.

First in a well-researched series about Herodias's life (which promises to get more scandalous as it continues), Rebel Puritan was self-published, though don't let this dissuade you from checking it out. Professionally written and packaged, it stands up well against any mainstream novel on the market.  (One distraction: the characters' thoughts are written in single quotes, almost like dialogue, but I got used to this after a while.)  If you enjoy realistic novels about strong women from early America, this is a must-read.

Rebel Puritan was published by Neverest Press in January 2011 at $16.99 (trade pb, 324pp).  You can order it, like I did, through the author's website for the cover price plus postage.  Visit Christy English's blog for a guest post from the author, who writes about her experience with self-publishing.


  1. I simply can't imagine any respectable couple naming a baby Herodias--it must have been after she started into her rebellious childhood. Goodness, but that's almost as bad as Jezebel!

    Thanks for the heads up on this one. :-)

  2. Yes, really! That's covered in the book - she chooses to go by a shorter form of her name (Herod, pronounced more like Hor-rud or Harwood) because her given name was so notorious.

  3. Anonymous3:36 PM

    Sounds like a great book. Thanks for the review

  4. Ooh, what an interesting time period to cover. Definitely adding to the TBR pile.

  5. Sarah, many thanks for this wonderful review! When I first learned that I was descended from a woman named Herodias, I figured that her parents must not have been listening well in church.

    I have heard from many of Herod's descendants that their families are known for hard-headed women. It's fun to think that Herodias is responsible!

  6. Maybe they wanted a Biblical name and turned to a random page without thinking it through fully? I don't know which is more unusual, that or Mahershallalhashbaz.

  7. Great review, I love this time period too, and the subject matter.

  8. I'm beginning to think I might have to stop reading your blog, I see so many good books here then go and order them immediately. I have a growing 'to read' pile and a shrinking bank account.