Monday, June 24, 2024

A Jim Blake illustration from Suzanne Blier’s “The Streets of Newtowne.”

In the beginning, there were the Massachusett, people who believed in a symbiosis of human and nature and gave back to the land. According to Suzanne Blier’s new book, “The Streets of Newtowne” (Imagine & Wonder Publishers, New York) their life was a peaceful one: One woman gathers shellfish into handwoven baskets, another plants fish to fertilize the corn and some of the village boys fix the roofs. With vivid paintings by Jim Blake, a graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, the book gives a sense of serenity – until the “spirit of death” comes in the form of English settlers.

Where the Massachussett took care of nature, the English destroy it. Disease weakens the area, animals are imported that trample crops and food sources, and Native Americans are forced to sign more and more of the land away. The Mayflower Pilgrims do not respect the customs of the Indigenous people. Instead, they rename everything, and now the formerly small village is called Newtowne and the Quinobequin becomes the Charles River. Remaining Massachusett residents are forced out. Destitute, they are made to live in “praying towns” where they are converted into Christianity. An “Indian College” is created and named Harvard, and young Native boys are sent to be provided with a religious education.

The 50-page piece – filled with beautiful illustrations and onomatopoeia such as “Tap, tap, turn!” and “Bang, bang, bonk” – resembles an extended picture book, but Blier includes none of the usual staples of a children’s story: a main character, or plot. Each chapter begins by stating the years during which the events took place, and it provides a comprehensive account of the history and changes Cambridge went through. This is more like a history text made more palatable to children’s tastes.

In an age in which fourth-graders read Harry Potter and (if they have especially lenient parents) watch “The Simpsons,” this book seems a little young for the grade and age range that the author proposes. Yet some of the writing is too advanced for younger children – words such as “munitions” and phrases such as “higher taxes were levied to modernize the streets and schools” will likely go over a second-grader’s head. This is not likely to be a book a child can read and enjoy alone, but might work well for a parent or teacher who wants to teach about a specific period and can add explanation.

Blier describes Native American, African American and women’s-rights history that is typically brushed under the rug. She tells of Anne Dudley Bradstreet, who wrote poems about the struggles that come with motherhood and religion, and of midwife Anne Hutchinson, who was banished for wanting a larger role for women in the church. In Blier’s telling of the Revolutionary War, she makes sure to include 6-year-old Darby Vassal, an African American boy who told George Washington, “Work without pay is unreasonable.” Throughout the book, Blier takes particular care to mention the work and struggles of Indigenous people. In her conclusion, she explains that it was only in 2004 that the law forbidding the Massachusett at Ponkapoag from speaking their own language was repealed.

With Blier’s critical outlook on history, the lovely illustrations and the key thinking questions sprinkled in, “The Streets of Newtowne” is worth reading to young children who are ready to learn more about all of Cambridge’s history, including those who are all too often left out of history books. “The Streets of Newtowne” comes out Thursday, and can be requested from local bookstores, as well as ordered on bookshop.org.