Constance Hopkins was a passenger onboard the Mayflower. The daughter of Stephen Hopkins, neither she nor her father were part of the congregation of Separatist we commonly call Pilgrims but members of the Virginia Company. At least Steven was. Constance was merely fourteen when she made the journey. This is her story, the tale of the first five years within Plymouth, America’s second permanent settlement.
I first read this book six years ago, when teaching American history to my then-homeschooled daughter. I liked it even more with this second reading. The tale is meticulously researched. As a history buff, I’ve dug into the “true story” of the Pilgrims on my own, and it was an absolute pleasure to watch names from old documents develop into personalities and relationships. It is my favorite part of historical fiction—bringing humanity to the stories of our past.
Ms. Clapp does a tremendous job sketching the town, the tasks, the everyday survival of the settlement. Of course the book includes the first hard winter when fully half of the 102 settlers succumbed to starvation and disease. It introduces us to Squanto and Samoset, the English-speaking Indians who befriended the pilgrims, as well as Samoset’s daughter and Massosoit, chief of the friendly Wampanoag tribe. That is where most schoolbook knowledge ends, but the book goes farther. Soon after the harvest feast we fondly remember as the First Thanksgiving, trouble begins anew. Another English ship delivered more settlers—and no supplies.
Few of us are familiar with the second winter, another time of hunger (though not as deadly as the first) when Oceanus, the famous baby born aboard the Mayflower, succumbed to malnutrition. Nor are we aware of Squanto’s arrogance, his mischief that lead to minor tensions with the Wampanoag, his faith in the white man’s God, or his death only two years after the Pilgrim’s arrival. We rarely consider the lingering debt the settlers were obliged to pay off to the investors who financed the settlement. We never learn of the continuing stream of settlers or the trouble wrought by two angry maligners who slandered the colonists to their investors and caused no end of grief. We hear little of the close call with unfriendly tribes.
The book does a marvelous job filling in these details for us. But ending five years after the Mayflower‘s arrival, it cannot fully convey the magnitude of the lasting peace (fifty years!) due in great part to the strong, fair leadership of two brilliant men, Governor William Bradford and Chief Massasoit. It does, however, show the stark contrast between Plymouth, which was prompted by freedom, settled by families, governed with fairness, and guided by godliness, and Jamestown, settled fourteen years before by men concerned primarily with making a profit. The difference in lives lost is astounding!
Constance is considered juvenile fiction. Because it includes some (innocent) romance, enough old-fashioned vocabulary to make it challenging, and plenty of domestic themes within this society so dependent on stable marriages, it’s probably best for ages 11+. But 11-year-olds will most likely miss the witty undertones between characters that makes the dialogue so enjoyable for readers of a bit more maturity.
I highly, HIGHLY recommend Constance as supplemental reading for an American history class or for those wishing to familiarize their children or themselves with the truth behind the story we celebrate each Thanksgiving. If you’re like me and thrive on this history stuff, I’d also recommend reading through this related Wikipedia article for some brief background on Constance’s father, the remarkable Stephen Hopkins. His real life adventures were truly amazing!