Small-town life has always been subject to petty power struggles. The political-religious squabbles that beset colonial Boston in the 1630s were especially fervid, given that founding governor John Winthrop foresaw, correctly, that the fate of this hardscrabble "citty on a hill" would ultimately "be made a story and a byword through the world." Little wonder, then, that when a well-spoken newcomer, Anne Hutchinson, the 44-year-old mother of 15 children, began attracting influential men to "conventicles" (scripture discussions) held in her parlor, Winthrop and his ministerial cohorts soon singled her out as a potential enemy of the church and the state in those days, essentially the same entity.
Drawing on a staggering amount of historical detail (including transcripts of Hutchinson's two trials, the only paper trail left by most woman of that era), 12th-generation descendant Eve LaPlante plots her forebear's downfall with the vivid immediacy of a novel. While some of the doctrinal debates recounted might strike the modern reader as hair-splitting sophistry, LaPlante reminds us that, for the colonists, such theological wrangling represented not only the path to eternal salvation, but the be-all and end-all of permissible entertainment.
Banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Hutchinson went on to found the colony of Rhode Island (the only woman who can claim such a distinction), but her path ended in tragedy a turn which Winthrop greeted with unseemly schadenfreude. Still, her legacy lives on, and American Jezebel, released during National Women's History Month, comes as a timely reminder of the causes she held dear: freedom of speech, religious and racial tolerance, and the spiritual fulfillment available oh, heresy even to females.
Sandy MacDonald is based in Nantucket and Cambridge, Massachusetts.