The best historical novels of Early Colonial New England

Tim Weed Author Of Will Poole's Island
By Tim Weed

The Books I Picked & Why

The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757

By James Fenimore Cooper

Book cover of The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757

Why this book?

This classic adventure novel, first published in 1826, is still worth reading for the vividness of the wilderness landscape it brings to life; for its well-researched backdrop of the North American theater of the Seven Years War (the so-called French and Indian War); and for its sympathetic, if highly romanticized, portrayal of its Native American and Anglo-American characters. The novel is also important as a cultural artifact. Its influence has been deep and enduring, not only as a piece of literature but as a formative element in the USA’s national mythology and self-image.

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The Old American

By Ernest Hebert

Book cover of The Old American

Why this book?

This novel, published in 2000 by the University Press of New England, has in my opinion never gained the readership it deserves. It’s a rich, funny, deeply humane captivity tale based on the true story of Nathan Blake, who was taken by Algonkian-speaking people from his home in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1746, and brought up to Canada, where he was held for three years as a slave. The novel weaves a defamiliarized but extremely plausible-feeling tapestry of early colonial America that complicates the stereotypes established by Cooper’s influential novel set in the same period, and Hebert’s main character, Caucus-Meteor—an elderly, multilingual Indian and the last survivor of his band—is by my lights one of the great characters in literature.

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Caleb's Crossing

By Geraldine Brooks

Book cover of Caleb's Crossing

Why this book?

This gripping, beautifully written novel, published in 2011 and set in 1665, tells the story of the friendship and love affair between Caleb, a young Wampanoag from Martha’s Vineyard who became the first Native American to graduate Harvard, and Bethia Mayfield, a young woman who yearns for an education forbidden to her by the island’s small community of Puritan settlers. The novel makes excellent use of the limited primary sources available to an author attempting to recreate 17th century New England, offering a compelling vision of early colonial Martha’s Vineyard and the great clash of two diametrically opposed worldviews that happened to share a preoccupation with the visionary and unseen.

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Hour of the Witch

By Chris Bohjalian

Book cover of Hour of the Witch

Why this book?

Published in 2021 and set in 1662, Hour of the Witch provides a refreshingly defamiliarized and unusually intimate perspective on early colonial Boston, a city better known for the momentous historical events that unfolded there more than a century later. Notable for its well-researched and plausible account of seventeenth-century divorce proceedings, this immersive historical novel tells a tense and harrowing story of spousal abuse, domestic power imbalances, and accusations of witchcraft as a method for revenge and reputational assassination. The story is true to the past but also feels quite contemporary, offering a fascinating window into the history of early colonial America deeply informed by the perspective of the here and now.

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Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

By Mary Rowlandson

Book cover of Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

Why this book?

Ok, this isn’t actually a historical novel, but it was a bestseller when it came out back in 1682 and in some ways it does read like fiction. The story of a Puritan settler and her three children who were captured by Narragansett Indians during King Phillip’s War, Rowlandson’s account, judged by contemporary mores, is both racist and religiously bigoted. Still, it provides a rare first-hand rendering of the Puritan experience of a central truth of 17th century America: the collision of two radically distinct societies and the personal fallout resulting from that collision. As such it’s an invaluable historical document—though one best considered alongside other, less publicized primary accounts, which tell us that many seventeenth-century English captives, especially younger ones, were reluctant to return to the English settlements because of the freedom and ease they found in Indian society.

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