Unredeemed, enhanced and deepened

Thursday June 28, 2012

MONTEREY -- In the mid-1980s, Dr. John Demos -- the Samuel Knight Professor of American History Emeritus at Yale -- considered three decades of his writings, and noticed two glaring omissions: narrative and American Indians.

He set out to fix that, and 10 years of research, travel, and writing yielded his 1994 bestseller, "The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America," which he will discuss at a talk on Saturday at Tyringham Union Church.

"I'd been operating as a scholar-writer on early America for three decades and had barely noticed Indians in any of my published work," Demos said. "That seemed like a moral, as well as substantive, gap. Also, I wanted to engage in telling a story, something that up to that point I hadn't really done."

Demos said his tendency to steer away from storytelling came from the era in which he entered academia, and the ways his early professors and peers felt history should be presented publicly.

In the 1960s, when his career began, Demos was part of a movement emphasizing interpretive and argumentative history writing based mostly on questions and problems.

Fiction writers and poets, he said, do far more with the development of protagonists and what such figures convey. He said he felt history could benefit from such expression.

"After 20 years of immersion in that approach, I felt something was missing in this very sterile and scientific type rendering," Demos said. "What attracted me to history as a youngster was its stories, and I wanted to go back to that. Once, history was considered a branch of literature, and so the possibilities of molding re search into something more than expository output were tremendously appealing when I wrote this book."

A challenging puzzle

"The Unredeemed Captive," a National Book Award finalist, tells the story of a 1704 Mohawk Indian and French settler raid on Deerfield, where scores were killed and more than 100 people were herded off to Montreal. The Mohawk warriors were Catholic, having been converted by Jesuit missionaries.

Among those taken in the raid were John Williams, a Puritan minister, and his daughter. While he was eventually released, his 7-year-old daughter, Eunice, re mained with her captors.

She converted to Catholicism, and at age 16 she married a Mohawk. She lived among them until her death at age 95.

"The research involved in piecing together the events and aftermath was painstaking but tremendously interesting, like putting together a challenging puzzle," Demos said. "I relied on written material -- documents -- almost entirely. I did spend lots of time in Deerfield and Montreal. I also traveled to Ottawa at the Archives of Canada, and to Paris hunting for Jesuit stuff, which I basically didn't find. Also, I visited more than 20 East Coast archival sites."

Demos explained this attention to detail helped his writing, and the story was able to take shape, but not without unique twists.

"Unique for me, yes," Demos said. "I'd never written narrative, or, anyway, not much. So things like plotting and voice were front and center. The hardest thing to overcome was the lack of certain potentially crucial evidence.

"There was nothing that comes directly from the unredeemed captive herself. She didn't speak English, and she was illiterate. As a result of this I had, mid-course, to make a strategic shift. The book became more about re sponse to her captivity than about her actual experience."

Cultural sponsorship

The event is sponsored by the Bidwell House Museum in Mo n terey, but because of public interest it will be held at Tyringham Church to give more space.

Barbara Palmer, the museum's executive director, said Demos' talk on a popular book of regional interest is in keeping with her organization's educational outreach.

"The Bidwell House Museum tells the story of the early settlement of the Berkshires," Palmer said. "The museum sponsors a history talk series each summer, focused on the colonial and early American period.

We are fortunate to have Pro fessor Demos open the series this year with his telling of the fascinating story of his book."

For his part, Demos sees history as a valuable tool for understanding the enormity of events as they happen today.

"History is much more than assembling and passing along information," he said. "We are all enhanced and deepened from its sharing."

What: 'The Unredeemed Captive: Her Journey and My Own,' by John Demos and Bidwell House

When: Saturday at 10 a.m.

Where: Tyringham Union Church, 128 Main Rd., Tyringham

Admission: $15


Bidwell House: Colonial home of the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell, built in 1750 as a parsonage, with Colonial antiques and exhibits.

Where: 100 Art School Road, Monterey

When: House open Thursday to Monday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Columbus Day, with tours on the hour --

Gardens and trails open daily from dawn to dusk

Admission: $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $5 for students

Information: (413) 528-6888, www.bidwellhousemuseum.org


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