Nancy Shattuck's Watertown Chronicles

The road to Stogumber. Travelling to Stogumber from Tolland last spring, my GPS took me down this road, with my wife at the wheel white knuckled for fear somebody in a much larger car was just coming around the corner. Ahead is the motherland for all descendants of William Shattuck (1622-1672)

Book Review by Philip Shaddock

The book was published in November, 2020.

Nancy Shattuck: William the Patriarch, Book One of The Watertown Chronicles (The Ardent Writers Press, LLC)

Nancy Shattuck’s first book in her series about historical Watertown begins with a man on a horse on his way to a town meeting. The meeting is bound to be contentious, but on the way he has another controversy to solve, a family controversy.

So begins Nancy Shattuck’s sojourn into the past. The motif of the man on a journey has a long tradition in stories and myths. The theme of a journey shows up again in the dreams of the hero of the chronicle, William Sherborn, who wants to undertake the hazardous journey back home to Stogumber, Somerset, England. At the meeting he eventually arrives at, William Sherborn is cajoled into taking up duties overseeing the vital arteries of roads in his community. And at the meeting there is much discussion but no resolution to the problem of how to fund a bridge that needs to be built. William is being cast in the traditional role of a hero on a journey faced with obstacles. Will he find his way back home?

The book itself is a journey into a past Nancy shares with the mounted hero. William Sherborn is modeled after Nancy’s forebearer, William Shattuck (1622-1672), who settled in Watertown, now a city that is part of Greater Boston, but back in 1666 was an area of scattered pioneer homesteads, strung together by dirt roads.

Each chapter of the book begins with a place and a date, in the first chapter “Watertown, July 1666.” I decided to get the exact definition for a “chronicle,” so I asked my Google Assistant for definition. She replied in her usual terse and economical manner: “A factual written account of important or historical events in the order of their occurrence.”

In fact there are important parallels between what we know about the life of William Shattuck and William Sherborn. At the back of the book Nancy provides the reader with a “Retrospect” consisting of the factual historical information we have about the patriarch of the Shattuck family and his children and spouses. They are identical to those found in the book, along with many of the books characters.

The book begins with a foreword where Nancy sketches in the political, social and religious events swirling around the lives of the Watertown residents during the time period covered by the book. The book is woven out of these strands.

St. Mary's in Stogumber. This is the church where William Shattock was baptized on the 16th of March in 1622.

Both the fictional and historical Williams were weavers. Weaving and story telling have long been linked. Weaving consists of interlacing long threads of fabric (spun wool in this case) with fabric running in the opposite direction. “Storyweaving” is a dramatica term that describes the process of unfolding a dramatic structure over time. I was some distance into the book before I realized this is precisely what Nancy has done. On its own, the biographical facts that have come down from the life of William Shattuck that can be gleaned from old town records, gravestones or family histories recorded in bibles or stories are not rich enough to make a story. But when sparse biographical events are interwoven with the rich detail of historical events, the tapestry that results is full of color, drama and deep human interest. This is what Nancy has written. For Shattucks of America, the family bible is a book written by Lemuel Shattuck, also a direct descendant of William the patriarch, who wrote a book called “Memorials of the Descendants of William Shattuck, The Progenitor of the Families in America That Have Borne His Name” published in Boston in 1855.

It is a scrupulously researched book 414 pages long detailing the lives of William’s descendants up to the middle of the nineteenth century. My own research, which has the advantage of genetic testing and internet access to many records not available to Lemuel, have found his genealogies to be highly accurate. Nancy’s book deserves to be placed right beside that of Lemuel’s.

But of course, Nancy’s chronicle is different because she uses narrative to weave the story of William into the fabric of his time or vice versa. As Nancy details in her Foreword, William lived in a pivotal time in American colonial history. The colonists had a tenuous hold on life in the American wilderness and Nancy brings this context into full relief, such as the story of the neighbour devastated when a tree fell not only on the family’s house but severed access to the road that passed their house, a viral artery in Watertown’s economy and life.

If you ever do a pilgrimage to the village of Stogumber, stop by for a pint at the White Horse Inn. When the turnpike bypassed Stogumber in the early 19th century, it became even further out of the way and never became modern, preserving centuries of history in its buildings and farm lands. Standing in the churchyard I was awed by the realization that generations of Shattockes walked up this very path to attend church (behind me when I shot this photo).

Lemuel Shattuck was never able to determine where William Shattuck was born in England. And up until 2014, when I undertook to discover his birth place, there had been a lot of speculation about his birthplace that ranged over the entire length of England. As part of my research I read all the sources I could find on the diaspora of English Puritans out of England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The seminal book on English immigration to America, "Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America" by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, 1989), was one of my most important sources. Fischer illuminates one of the threads that runs through Nancy’s book: why did the Puritans leave England for an uncertain, perilous and extremely harsh life in the American wilderness? In his book Fischer sets the stage (pp. 16-7). King Charles the first tried "to rule England without the parliament and Archbishop William Laud purged the Anglican church of its Puritan members." It was a time of economic depression, epidemic disease, religious strife and constitutional crisis. It was estimated that 21,000 emigrants fled conditions at home for the Massachusetts Bay colony.

Another book I consulted could almost be a subtitle for Nancy’s book: “Vexed and Troubled Englishmen 1590-1642” by Carl Bridenbaugh (New York, Oxford University Press, 1968). The subtitle is “The Beginnings of the American People.” It should be required reading for American school children so that they understand the roots of American political and social culture.

This is a very good reason for reading Nancy’s book because Americans claiming descent from English immigrants numbered over 49 million in the 1980 census, making them the largest reported group at about 27% of the population. As Fischer shows so clearly, the New England colonists had a major impact on American culture, in this case bringing their desire for self government and religious purity and the emphasis on the centrality of the family with them and laying it as one of the foundations of American political and social life that has endured down to the present.

“Among the people, who were too close to the hardships of life to comprehend what was occurring, everything seemed to be going wrong both for themselves and their country. In rural and economic matters, in domestic policies and foreign affairs, and above all else, in the practice of their protestant faith, nothing is as it should be.” This quote is from the jacket copy of Bridenbaugh’s, but it could be easily a description of the mood of America in the present time. It certainly describes the existential dread of William Sherborn who has found his anxieties have followed him to the new land.

St. Mary Magdalene in the church named after her in Taunton. Nancy's hero remembers being in the church and listening to its wonderful bells.

Nancy places William Sherborn right into the midst of this strife and makes it personal. In fact William Sherborn, like William Shattuck, can be judged to be successful by the year 1666 when the novel begins, when he is forty-four years of age. At the age of eighteen he was granted one acre of land, but by 1666 his estate had grown to over 80 acres, having bought the land of his neighbours who gave up and failed to lay down roots. And he had successful businesses. But the fictional Sherborn, who knows his prospects were dim early in his life in England, is looking back and wondering if he made the right decision by immigrating to America and raising his children in the new social context. Many of his neighbours have returned to England, preferring the exigencies of England to the dangers of the new world, the threat of Dutch competitors, indigenous peoples trying to reclaim their land and the threat from church members who might punish them for straying from the Puritan path of righteousness. Again, his anxieties have a peculiar resonance in the minds of those modern Americans who feel the country is under siege and has lost its way. Nancy’s book shows us a simple truth often expressed in the phrase “you can’t return home.” While William Sherborn dreams of an England that he has long left behind, the truth is that most Americans who dream of returning to the world of their youth have yet to discover that world never really existed and cannot be resurrected. There is no escape from the challenges of a chaotic social and natural world.

Nancy makes William’s family the taproot for his continued presence in the new world Puritan community. In this respect her chronicle is in perfect accordance with Fischer’s research. Fischer argues that it is not persecution that drove people to leave the comfort and continuity of their English villages. There was a desire to serve God's will and be free of temptation, and because of the hostility of Anglican neighbours and officials in England to non-conformists, many decided to start fresh in a virgin land. Like modern communes, they wanted a retreat from their motherland where they could create a social environment for their families that was based on their shared Puritan beliefs. This meant that, more than any other group emigrating to America, the Puritans migrated with their whole family. "To a remarkable degree, the founders of Massachusetts traveled in families--more so than any major ethnic group in American history." (Fischer p. 25)

It has been well-documented how harsh Puritans could be to their fellow Puritans who strayed from what was regarded as the righteous path. The colonists who gave up and returned to England were in danger of being ostracized back home, refused admittance to the church and accused of going against the will of God. Puritans could be especially cruel to their neighbours who strayed from their strict interpretation of the bible, such as the Quakers. William Shattuck of Boston, who was probably a second, third or fourth cousin of William Shattuck, was a Quaker hounded out of Boston after he was fined and thrown into jail for not attending church. And a Samuel Shattuck made a perilous journey back to London to protest the treatment of Quakers by their Puritan neighbours in the colony. He was successful.

These historical threads are woven into Nancy’s chronicle, by reference as well as by instance. William’s estranged son John is identified as a false witness to the character of his neighbour which could have ruined his neighbour’s life in the colony. And his son shows a deep intolerance towards the indigenous peoples that have reason to resent the intrusion of European settlers into their historical land and traditional social conflicts.

This is the reason why I think Nancy’s fictional account of William Sherborn might be so useful to New England colonial descendants seeking their identity through the current fascination for genealogical research. Nancy details the life of a single man and his family struggling to cope with the harsh social and natural environment they emigrated to. She brings all the different threads together in a compelling story.

I do not want to simply reduce her story to a simple sociological study. Like a tapestry with many threads and rich with the meanings consciously and unconsciously woven into it by the artist, Nancy’s chronicle carries many meanings. The book is dedicated to her father, Claude Emerson Shattuck, but just below the dedication we find a quote from Tao Te Ching

The way that can be gone

Is not the eternal way…

I think it is a sign post on the road to Watertown. We are to not take her words too literally although she writes simply and poetically of the natural and social world inhabited by William. The second line of the chronicle reads, “William rocked in the creaking saddle, calmed by the rhythmic sound of his grey roan’s hoofs on the dry dirt road.” We feel rooted in the natural world, a time traveler on a road in Watertown four and a half centuries ago, lulled by the beautiful rhythm of her prose. But clearly the signpost below the dedication to her father is a warning to not take her words too literally and not to ignore signs of trouble ahead. After all the chronicle begins with a sojourn into trouble. It turns out that his daughter Mary has “second sight” that endangers her in a Puritan community fearful of witches and the presence of Devils in the shadows. And William, who is a practical, wise and compassionate man is troubled by dreams, particularly a dream about returning home. His yearning for home reminds of Odysseus trying to find his way back home after the sacking of Troy, with his wife Susanna cast in the role of Penelope.

This is the Chinese classic text traditionally credited to the 6th-century BC sage Laozi. It is the fundamental text for both philosophical and religious Taoism. I had flirted with Taoism in my youth in the sixties when I was searching for my way in life, but I had to call up my Google Assistant for a precise definition of Taoism. “Dào/tao literally means ‘way’, or one of its synonyms, but was extended to mean ‘the Way’. This term, which was variously used by other Chinese philosophers (including Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, and Hanfeizi), has special meaning within the context of Taoism, where it implies the essential, unnameable process of the universe.” The Tao tells us to read the prose like poetry, with many levels of meaning. Indeed the Puritans inhabited a world they did not take literally. Their view of the world had not yet been subsumed under scientific observation and theories. They see the hand of the Devil and the providence of God in natural and human events and live within a spiritual landscape.

This is the amazing craft of the book. Like an Andrew Wyeth painting which realistically portrayed the scenes within walking distance of his house, in the Nancy Shattuck chronicle we think we feel in Nancy’s beautifully crafted descriptions of people and places we are reading about the mundane realities of life in colonial America, for example how the hogs were hobbled to prevent them from destroying the fence erected to contain them. But steadily, carefully, expertly Nancy moves us from the quotidian to the eternal, a steady march up to the final chapter of the book as if encouraging us to break down the fence between the mundane world and the eternal one. The book ends in a most amazing final chapter which I will not spoil by describing except to say it brought me near to tears. If you did not heed her warning at the beginning of the book, you just might be in for the surprise of your life.

Andrew Wyeth’s father, N.C. Wyeth was a famous illustrator of fantasies, the most memorable being “Treasure Island.” His paintings told stories using entirely imaginary characters, like Captain Hook. His son also used his skills as a painter to tell stories. But such was the skill of Andrew, that he could tell a story using something as simple as a milk pail hung on the side of a barn. Or lace curtains billowing in a breeze. Such is the skill Nancy brings to her book. Her craft is simple, descriptive words and straight forward facts. But the story she tells is timeless and very moving.