Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving, 1621 Style!

I've been away from the blog longer than usual this month because I've been working hard on the sequel to Enoch's Device. But since it's Thanksgiving eve, I'm re-posting my traditional piece on the first Thanksgiving. And I've included some menu items from this year's feast after the post!

Growing up, I never paid much attention to the origin of Thanksgiving. Other than what I may have learned in elementary school, all I ever recall knowing was that it was a big feast between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sometime after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. Only in the past few years did I become interested in what really happened at the first Thanksgiving. Yet like many an adventure, it all started with a few bottles of wine ...

Thanksgiving, 1621, Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Not that the pilgrims drank wine at the first Thanksgiving (at least by any accounts I’ve read, although they did have some beer), but the several bottles my friends and family drank a few years ago, after another gut-busting Thanksgiving dinner, inspired us to do some research into the origin of Thanksgiving. (That’s also how we rediscovered the role Squanto played in all of this, but more on him in a moment.)

Apparently there are only two written accounts of the first Thanksgiving, which was celebrated in 1621 as a harvest feast by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. Turkey, it turns out, was not the centerpiece of the meal, although one of the two written accounts referenced a “great store of wild turkeys.” The main course appeared to be venison, but there is also reference to waterfowl and “Indian corn.”

The interesting part about the meal is what was not eaten, at least according to an article in The Smithsonian Magazine. There were no potatoes or sweet potatoes. White potatoes originated in South America and sweet potatoes came from the Caribbean, and neither had apparently made it to Massachusetts by 1621. The Pilgrims also lacked butter and wheat flour, so there was no pumpkin pie. Among things they probably did eat were fish, eels, and shellfish (like lobster, clams, and mussels), which were staples for the Wampanoag and the colonists.

But this feast may never have occurred if it were not for a Patuxet Native American named Tisquantum, commonly known as Squanto. He served as an interpreter for the Pilgrims, taught them how to grow corn, and showed them the best places to catch fish and eel, all of which helped them survive their first winter at Plymouth. He also helped negotiate a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag in March of 1621. Without this, I suspect there would not have been a first Thanksgiving.

A drawing of Squanto – I imagine he dressed more warmly in the winter of 1621!

Squanto’s backstory was less than idyllic. He was captured twice by the English and forced to leave his wife and child. During his first captivity in 1605, he was taken to England along with several other native Americans. There, his captor, Capt. George Weymouth, wanted to display them for his financial backers, who were interested in seeing some natives from the New World. In England, Squanto learned English and apparently became the consort of an English woman. By 1613, he was hired as a guide for an expedition to New England and returned to the New World with the famous explorer John Smith.

This is the same John Smith who was saved by Pocahontas in 1607 and 1608.

But Squanto’s time back in Plymouth, where the Patuxet lived, did not last long. Once Smith went north on another expedition, one of his lieutenants, a Capt. Thomas Hunt, kidnapped Squanto and twenty-six other Native Americans to sell them into slavery. Hunt sailed to Spain, where he hoped to sell his captives for twenty pounds each. When local friars discovered Hunt’s plans, they rescued Squanto and his brethren, hoping to convert them to Christianity. Squanto ended up living with the friars until 1618, when he found his way back to London, and then to a ship headed to the New World.

Upon returning home, Squanto discovered that his entire Patuxet tribe had died from the plague (believed to be smallpox, a disease introduced to the New World by Europeans). Despite all this mistreatment and misfortune, he stayed and helped the Pilgrims until he died of fever in 1622. According to one account, the Massachusetts governor at the time called Squanto a “special instrument sent by God for their good beyond their expectations.”

So this Thanksgiving, my family and friends are going a bit more historical. There will be venison and some lobster, and turkey of course. (I suspect mashed potatoes will be in order too, only because my friends and family might never forgive me if I eliminate them for the sake of historical purity.) There will also be more wine and probably a few mixed drinks – including a special concoction that we intend to dedicate to Squanto.

2015 Menu Update: This year, we're going to our neighbor's house for Thanksgiving, so I'm not cooking my usual six course meal. But I'm still preparing a few dishes in honor of the first Thanksgiving, namely littleneck clams steamed in Boston lager and fried lobster tails with a horseradish crème fraiche sauce! I'm also making an oyster dressing (my wife's favorite), my signature pumpkin soup with fig quenelles and prosciutto, and turkey gravy made with a port wine reduction! 

Yes, I love cooking almost as much as I love writing! HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

The Mayflower in 1620
Another interesting fact: Through my father’s side of the family, I am a direct descendant of Francis Cooke and his son John, and Richard Warren and his daughter Sarah, who married John Cooke. Francis, John, and Richard all journeyed to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620 and were likely present at the first Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

George R.R. Martin's “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” May Be the Most Fun In Westeros Yet!

Two months ago, I deemed The Einstein Prophecy by Robert Masello my favorite book of 2015. But after reading George R.R. Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, I must say we have a new winner. In fact, this one may rank among my favorite books of all time. Here are a few reasons why.

Unlike A Game of Thrones with its epic scope and myriad of viewpoint characters, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms follows the adventures of Ser Duncan the Tall, sometimes referred to as Dunk the Lunk, and his squire, a bald, scrawny boy of eight curiously named Egg. In fact, before they were compiled into this beautifully illustrated tome, these novellas were known as “The Tales of Dunk and Egg.” Compared to the frequent grimness of A Song of Ice and Fire, this book is a breath of fresh air. My only wish is that it was longer, for I would love to read more of their adventures.

Set a hundred years before A Game of Thrones, the story opens with Dunk burying the hedge knight he served. In Westeros, even a hedge knight has the power to bestow knighthood on another, but it’s never clear whether the old man knighted Dunk or if the lad just took the old man’s sword and horse and set off to seek fame and fortune at the nearest tourney. Along the way, he meets an odd and likeable boy named Egg who wants desperately to become Dunk’s squire. Together, they set out on a series of adventures that will shape the fate of the Seven Kingdoms. And adding a twist to the tale, one of the pair is far more than he appears.

The novel is comprised of three novellas that Martin published between 1998 and 2010. The first story, titled “The Hedge Knight,” is our introduction to Dunk and Egg and the endearing relationship the two share. Without giving too much away, Dunk ends up in trouble with a Targaryen prince while trying to save a smallfolk girl Dunk has grown fond of. Ser Duncan, you see, is a knight true to his vows, but by honoring those vows, he soon finds himself in a trial by combat to save his life. The story involves dreams and prophecies and even hints to events that will transpire in A Song of Ice and Fire, but this is a character-driven tale with a protagonist and his squire you cannot help but love. Of the three novellas, “The Hedge Knight” was my favorite. But believe me, it was a very close call.

The second story, titled “The Sworn Sword,” involves a conflict with the Red Window, a noble lady who may have murdered her last four husbands, and now she’s at odds with the lord to whom Dunk has sworn his sword. This is the first of the three tales that delves into the political history of Westeros and an event called the Blackfyre Rebellion, where a bastard son of the old Targaryen king declared his rights to the Iron Throne. Here we learn of the red dragon – the banner of the Targaryen loyalists – and the black dragon, the banner of the rebel cause. As Dunk often reminds himself, “red or black was a dangerous question, even now.” It reminded me of the War of the Roses – a red rose or a white one – but then again, English history has always been Martin’s inspiration for his tales of Westeros.

Like all three stories, “The Sworn Sword” contains a good plot twist, but it also offers the most intriguing female character of the three tales. I found myself hoping for a happy ending, but then reminded myself this was written by George R.R. Martin. He gave us the Red Wedding, after all.

The third story, titled “The Mystery Knight,” concerns the second Blackfyre Rebellion, another tourney at the lists, and a dragon egg as a prize. There is even a prophecy of a dragon to be born from this conflict, and a hint of the coming of Daenerys’ dragons from A Game of Thrones. Like the first tale, Dunk and Egg find themselves embroiled in another adventure that will shape the fate of the Seven Kingdoms. There are a few more twists in this one than the other two, and it serves as a fitting ending to the book, though it left me wanting more. Fortunately, Martin plans on continuing the adventures of Dunk and Egg. If only he could finish The Winds of Winter and get on with it!

What makes this novel so wonderful is its namesake, Ser Duncan – the Knight of the Seven Kingdoms – and his relationship with the young boy, Egg. It’s different than anything Martin has given us in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, and as much as I enjoy his epic series, these three little tales were probably the most fun I’ve had in Westeros since I discovered Martin’s works. He’s promised us more of Dunk and Egg and I’m eagerly awaiting their next adventure.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Historical Fantasy: “The Skin Map”

With a title like The Skin Map and a hellish-red cover with shadowy images of pyramids and glowing arcane symbols, I expected this novel by Stephen R. Lawhead to be dark, and even biblically apocalyptic in tone. Boy was I wrong!

The Skin Map turned out to be one of the most whimsical novels by Lawhead I’ve ever read. You see, it’s all about ley lines, those mystical places where the fabric between dimensions runs thin (think Outlander and those ancient standing stones). And by way of these ley lines, there’s a lot about alternate realities and alternative histories, from ancient Egypt to seventeenth century London. And it’s a bit about a man named Arthur Flinders-Petrie, whose tattoos contain the secrets to navigating the ley lines and even understanding the mysteries of the Universe. So, you see, the map is on skin, but fortunately for Flinders-Petrie, that skin is still on his chest. 

While Flinders-Petrie is vital to the story, the book follows a number of other characters, several of whom are more important from a protagonist point of view. It all starts out when a modern-day Londoner named Kit, who “has all the social prospects of a garden gnome,” encounters Cosimo, his long-lost great-grandfather who doesn’t look nearly as old as he should. Cosimo has come to rescue Kit from “a life of quiet desperation and regret” by showing him the secrets of ley travel. Things, however, go awry after Cosimo’s initial journey with Kit causes him to miss a date with his morose girlfriend Mina. She doesn’t believe a word Kit says about “laying” lines and his long-lost relative, so Kit endeavors to prove it to her by showing her the ley line he and Cosimo used. But in the jump between dimensions, Kit and Mina become separated, and now Cosimo and Kit have to rescue her.

Thwarting them at every turn are the Burley men, henchmen of Lord Archelaeus Burleigh, a master ley traveler who seeks the skin map and believes Cosimo has a piece of it. Burleigh is a devilish villain who spices up the novel in every diverse storyline the book follows. These include an entire plotline about Arthur Flinders-Petrie and his tattoos, and one about Mina of course, whose life changes completely after she finds herself stuck in seventeenth century Prague.

All of the storylines coalesce by the novel’s end – but then the end is really not an ending. Rather, it’s a bit of a cliffhanger that doesn’t resolve the story. Lawhead has used cliffhangers before, and while I find them a tad frustrating, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the next book. The Skin Map is part of his five-book Bright Empires series, so there is plenty more to this adventure. 

All in all, I found The Skin Map to be a delightful story that showed a lot of promise for the series. It’s also further proof that Stephen R. Lawhead is among the great writers of historical fantasy right now. If you are looking for a fun and lighthearted adventure, I highly recommend it.