Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2018), 431 pp.
Lisa Brooks’s Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War explores the early colonial period from an Indigenous perspective in a fresh and vivid mixture of narrative creativity and meticulous research. Brooks recovers Indigenous voices, stories, and presences that were lost or strategically eradicated in early English historiographies like Increase Mather’s A Brief History of the Warr with the Indians in New-England (1676). Through the intertwined lives of different historical figures like Mary Rowlandson, Weetamoo, and James Printer, Brooks tells a story that shows the complexity of a war that colonial writers frequently represented as a dichotomic conflict between the forces of good and evil.
To begin with delineating the strengths of this book, one must say that the book delivers what the title promises. Brooks invigorates Indigenous cultures, values, and beliefs in the context of English settler colonialism. As Indigenous and English characters fight over names, symbols, land, language, and history, Brooks demonstrates the intricate relationships of clashing cultures and the way such relationships fused practices from different cultures. Brooks refers to “transculturation” (259), the transfer of specific cultural skills like writing across cultural contexts, to stress the value of restoring Indigenous cultural frameworks which have traditionally been dismissed as less sophisticated.
In this sense, the book itself performs transculturation as well. To revisit the conflict between Northeastern Indigenous tribes and English settlers, Brooks reinterprets the history of the war by using Indigenous methodologies like oral history and storytelling. Brooks does not intend to render “a definite replacement for a History that is old or outdated” (“About the Project”). She views history not through Western expectations of accuracy, causality, and finality but through an Abenaki conceptualization of history as “a process of telling a collective story, an ongoing activity in which we are engaged” (“About the Project”). History is told through the stories of individuals who find themselves caught up in escalating tensions of colonial conflict.
Brooks takes the time to develop the characters of her historical narrative, has readers discover their internal struggles over allegiance, and presents her protagonists as people who, far from living and dying for an ideology, care most about their immediate communities and families. Brooks first tries to understand the conflict’s human dimension and then details their roles in the war. Another insightful revision is Brooks’s representation of Indigeneity in all its heterogeneity. In common colonial perspectives, Indigenous peoples are repeatedly portrayed as an homogenous antagonist. This, according to Brooks, led settlers to pursue aggressive policies on the Northeastern frontier because of the false assumption that all Indigenous tribes would unite in a fight against the English. However, Brooks demonstrates that some tribes wanted to avoid involvement in the war and mobilized efforts to strengthen diplomatic relations with the colonists; others forged new intertribal alliances. Put simply, all parties involved in the war had different motivations, ambitions, hopes, and fears. Brooks convincingly restores the wealth of differences and motivations among Indigenous peoples involved in the conflict.
The part that does raise questions about Brooks’s accomplishment and her reconstruction of past events is her bold move towards historical fiction. The invented stories, italicized for clarity, are imagined accounts by Brooks about key figures and their thoughts and feelings in particular situations. Brooks believes that imagining interiority can be a valuable contribution if primary sources are missing or silent on specific actions. While readers steeped in the belief of Western methodology as the cultural norm will struggle to accept such a narrative strategy, these fictional stories bring characters to life in ways traditional histories do not. As such the fabricated parts are central to Brooks’s intention to tell a “new history” of King Philip’s War, precisely because they raise awareness that cultural methodologies tend to veil the specificity of their own practice. Brooks’s “new history” thus succeeds in reframing events through Indigenous symbolism and beliefs. For instance, one of her characters emphatically confesses:
Something had to be done to put the world back in balance. Like the earthquake, the pulsing wave of war came from the lower world of waters. It came coursing through the body of those who struck at English cattle. It flowed through the young man who brought her the head of her enemy. […] it was moving, spiraling tendrils from the earth. There was no escaping its movement. (146)
Such passages allow the reader to understand how Indigenous belief systems or epistemologies created a way of explaining the world which readers unfamiliar with Indigenous cultures otherwise have no access to. However, some of her fictional reconstructions overly emphasize inference about how and why events unfolded. Although this is part of Brooks’s effort to recover Indigenous knowledge, such inference runs the risk of merely replacing the oppositional conflict which the book initially intended to complicate. Her stories somehow restage an antagonistic drama enacted by brave Indigenous people surrounded by hypocritical English colonizers. At times, her enthusiasm for “opening up possibilities for Native presence” (6) obscures the complex relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples (Hämäläinen). Nevertheless, the entire monograph strikes a good balance between the recovery of a crucial colonial war and a multi-perspectival approach to retelling the event.
While Brooks’s monograph expands and enhances early colonial histories of King Philip’s War, Brooks also admits openly to skepticism about the historical genre. This critical engagement with its own genre lends the book its subversive power to unsettle historiographical norms about engaging the past. While scholars will appreciate such reflexiveness, readers who have not encountered forms of historical narration like Brooks’s historical fiction could find it difficult to accept her persuasive revision of King Philip’s War. Ultimately, it depends on the reader’s expectations if this book constitutes “A New History.” On the accompanying website of the book, Brooks explains that her book is “part of a cycling or spiraling of ôjmowôgan (history)” (“About the Project”). If we grant the warrant that history oscillates between competing narratives of the past, possible complaints about this book become unmerited. It is certainly one of those books that due to its bold engagement with the past will elicit either admiration or skepticism. This reviewer finally comes down on the side of admiration.
Jannis Buschky (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz)
Brooks, Lisa. “About the Project.” Our Beloved Kin: Remapping a New History of King Philip’sWar, 20 Nov. 2017. Web. 26 Nov. 2020. https://ourbelovedkin.com/awikhigan/about.