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April 2020 Indie Next List
— Kathy Morrison, Newtown Bookshop, Newtown, PA
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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Best Fiction Book of 2020
Most Anticipated Books of 2020 -- Vogue, Medium, LitHub
From the bestselling author of The Wives of Los Alamos comes the riveting story of a stranger’s arrival in the fledgling colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts--and a crime that shakes the divided community to its core.
Ten years after the Mayflower pilgrims arrived on rocky, unfamiliar soil, Plymouth is not the land its residents had imagined. Seemingly established on a dream of religious freedom, in reality the town is led by fervent puritans who prohibit the residents from living, trading, and worshipping as they choose. By the time an unfamiliar ship, bearing new colonists, appears on the horizon one summer morning, Anglican outsiders have had enough.
With gripping, immersive details and exquisite prose, TaraShea Nesbit reframes the story of the pilgrims in the previously unheard voices of two women of very different status and means. She evokes a vivid, ominous Plymouth, populated by famous and unknown characters alike, each with conflicting desires and questionable behavior.
Suspenseful and beautifully wrought, Beheld is about a murder and a trial, and the motivations--personal and political--that cause people to act in unsavory ways. It is also an intimate portrait of love, motherhood, and friendship that asks: Whose stories get told over time, who gets believed--and subsequently, who gets punished?
Praise For Beheld…
"In this plain-spoken and lovingly detailed historical novel, the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony is refracted through the prism of female characters. Despite the novel’s quietness of telling, its currency is the human capacity for cruelty and subjugation, of pretty much everyone by pretty much everyone." - New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
"I have been waiting for this book. But I’m not alone. There has been a sort of impatience and delicious anticipation felt by those waiting to be inside TaraShea Nesbit’s much talked about Beheld." - Sarah Jessica Parker, via Instagram
"A compelling exploration of friendship, character and the personal and political motivations that determine whose stories get told and whose voices are silenced." - Los Angeles Times, Books to Read to Study the Divided Nation
"A compelling new novel by TaraShea Nesbit, author of The Wives of Los Alamos, explores not only the dangers the first colonists confronted on arrival, but those they brought with them … Beheld disrupts expectation to render the pulsing messy lives of those too often calcified in myth." - USA Today
"There is a contradiction underpinning the whole project of English imperialism, and Nesbit flags it perfectly . . . The novel is most successful where it allows itself to stray from historical fact and plot--to invent and to play with language, to give itself imaginative time and space. Nesbit is brilliant in those moments, and captures a paradox of historical writing--that it’s in the invention and improvisation that the past feels most pressing and most real." - New York Times
"In a gripping retelling of the Plymouth colony’s first murder, we finally hear the voices of women--and they speak an unvarnished truth that turns history on its pointy-hatted head. Truly a riveting read." - Helen Simonson, author of MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND and THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR
"TaraShea Nesbit's puritans are passionate and vengeful and entrancing. Part mystery, part love story, beautifully told and meticulously researched, Beheld reanimates and complicates the mythologies of America's earliest settlers. I was sad when it ended." - Anton DiSclafani, author of THE YONAHLOSSEE RIDING CAMP FOR GIRLS
"Beheld breathes fresh life into a world grown still and murky beneath the scrim of legend--rife with intrigue, fractured by difference, marked by violence, and full of haunting images. With gorgeous, period-inflected prose, Nesbit takes us back to the earliest days of New England to look through the eyes and over the shoulders of historical characters both remembered and not. I read it at a gallop. What a marvel this novel is." - Laird Hunt, author of IN THE HOUSE IN THE DARK OF THE WOODS
"I read TaraShea Nesbit's Beheld months ago, and it's one of those novels that has stayed with me--in the best way." - Tina Jordan, New York Times Book Review Deputy Editor via Twitter
"A richly complex and sorrowful work with a particular interest in the role of women in the colony. . . . In this powerful work, Nesbit renders the past without muting its gravity." - Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"Nesbit . . . cleverly recasts pilgrim history in this deeply enjoyable novel . . . Capturing the alternating voices of the haves (the Bradfords, Newcomen) and the have-nots (the Billingtons), Nesbit’s lush prose adds texture to stories of the colony’s women, and her deep immersion in primary sources adds complexity to the historical record." - Publishers Weekly, starred review
"In this vein, Nesbit joins other writers of colonial life, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne himself, to show how easily hypocrisy and the Puritan faith merged in society. Eleanor has her own scarlet letter because of her marriage, her social status, and her outspoken bravery." - Washington Independent Review of Books
". . . the novel is a gripping read propelled by vibrant characterization, and an engrossing take on the Plymouth colony and America’s first murder." - Historical Novel Society
"Beheld is a thrilling, class-conscious take on the narrative of Plymouth that introduces marginalized voices whose stories are rarely told." - BookBrowse, four stars out of five
"Restoring women’s voices, primarily through Alice and Eleanor, adds a new and welcome dimension to our history, made more vivid by solid research and clear, concise prose. In Nesbit’s hands, history once again comes alive." - Booklist
"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." - Publishers Weekly
"Nesbit's novel has all the juicy sex, lies, and violence of a prestige Netflix drama and shines surprising light on the earliest years of America, massive warts and all. A dramatic look at the Pilgrims as seen through women's eyes." - Kirkus Reviews
"Nesbit tells this story of conflict and contradiction in alternating chapters from both the empowered and the powerless. The voices of the women are especially strong, particularly Elizabeth, whose friendships and reminiscences of the colony’s earlier days offer insight about the women of the plantation … Land ownership, religious observation and differing accounts of events all play their part in this clever, insightful novel that digs deeply into our country’s conflicted origins." - BookPage
"Nesbit’s empathy is as evident and important here as her commitment to accuracy . . . Reading historical fiction with a balanced combination of accuracy and emotion can approach reading a letter or a diary from the time. Such fiction can also offer intentional, carefully crafted drama and, in Nesbit’s case, beautiful prose. Beheld will engage readers who seek out historical fiction, and others who enjoy voice-driven psychological drama." - Fiction Writers Review
"Nesbit does a wonderful job of showing how a mind can be skewed to a certain train of thought." - Bowling Green Daily News
"This is one of those gaspy tales that can hold you enthralled until it's time to shock you good, and if you need something different, find it. Indeed, Beheld is a book you must have." - The Bookworm
". . . get ready for what the ladies of Plymouth have to say." - Paperback Paris
"The author’s nuanced and careful attention to the inner lives of women and underdogs is notable. It represents one of the best impulses in contemporary historical fiction." - The Christian Century
Bloomsbury Publishing, 9781635573220, 288pp.
Publication Date: March 17, 2020
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. In the first pages of the novel, Alice Bradford is anticipating the arrival of a ship. The passage is also full of foreshadowing. “Everything,” says Alice, “could have been a sign of what was to come” (6). How does foreshadowing work in the book? What expectations did you have as you read? What aspects of the story were still unexpected?
2. Both John and Eleanor Billington regularly refer to the puritans of Plymouth as “hypocrites.” What behaviors do the Billingtons see as hypocritical? Do you agree with their assessment?
3. The novel is written in sections from the perspectives of different characters—primarily Alice Bradford, John Billington, Eleanor Billington, and John Newcomen. (The exceptions are discussed in Question 6.) The men’s sections are narrated in the third person; the women speak themselves. What is the effect of having these different perspectives and different voices? Were there voices you trusted more than others? Do the characters ever differ on the facts, or is it only their interpretations that differ?
4. There are a few sections from other perspectives as well—the sections headed “Meanwhile” (139), “Nature” (173), “The Diary of John Winthrop” (230), and “Dorothy” (221 and 234). What purpose do these other sections serve?
5. Alice and Dorothy are very close as girls—“sisters,” Dorothy says after they share the blood from their scraped knees (111). But over time, Alice feels them growing apart. To what do you attribute the changes in their friendship? Do you feel either woman is to blame? Or is the distance brought on by certain cultural expectations at the time for how women and girls should behave?
6. Throughout the book, much goes unspoken about Dorothy’s death. How is our understanding of her death complicated through the course of the novel? How do you make sense of it in the end?
7. The conflict that leads to disaster in the novel is over a parcel of land. What is the significance of land for the colonists? What does it represent specifically for John Billington?
8. Although the murder in the colony is a first, death is very common in these characters’ lives, especially the death of infants and children. Religion—Anglican or puritan—is also important to their lives, and there is much discussion of God’s tests, signs, and punishments. How do grief and faith shape these people? Do you see differences in the characters’ personal relationships to God and religion?
9. Part Three expands the novel’s timeframe considerably. What is the effect of these leaps in time? How do you feel about Alice and Eleanor’s fates?
10. “If ever I beheld love, John, there was thee.” These are the last words we hear from Dorothy (236). What do you make of this statement? And how do you interpret the title of the book? Who or what in the story is beheld—or beholden?
11. The arrival of the Mayflower and founding of Plymouth Colony are familiar events in American history. Are there things you had learned—or assumed—about Plymouth and the puritans that the novel made you reconsider?
12. Prior to reading the book, what did you know about the interactions between the puritansand the indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands, particularly the members of the Wampanoag Nation? Was there anything that surprised you upon reading the novel?
13. The Author’s Note in the back tells us about the research the author did to write this novel, as well as that several aspects of the novel were fabricated. What do you think the relationship should be in a historical novel between what can be verified and what an author imagines, particularly when much of the history of women, children, and people of color has been suppressed, ignored, or cannot—due to a lack of written records, for instance—be verified?
14. How might the themes and stories of the book be relevant to our present moment?
Fiction: The Wives of Los Alamos, TaraShea Nesbit; Women Talking, Miriam Toews; Counternarratives, John Keene; I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Condé; A Mercy, Toni Morrison
Multi-genre: Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England, edited by Siobhan Senier
Poetry: WHEREAS, Layli Long Soldier; Mother/Land, Cheryl Savageau
Nonfiction: This Land Is Their Land, David Silverman; Our Beloved Kin, Lisa Brooks; Dissenting Bodies: Corporealities in Early New England, Martha Finch; The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter; White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg