TaraShea Nesbit’s second novel, set in 1630 in the colony of New Plymouth, explores the failures of infamous Puritan restraint. From the opening sentence — “We thought ourselves a murderless colony,” says Alice Bradford — Nesbit warns her readers to brace for violence. Beyond Plymouth’s protective palisade, Alice adds, are the wolves: “Wolves, so close to resembling our companions, but not of our kinship.” The subtext is clear: As the characters emerge, the challenge is deciding who among the colony are dangerous.

John Billington, a “commoner” and former indentured servant, complains about the “Puritan hypocrites” — the term Puritan, at this juncture, is itself an insult — who restrict trade with Indians in order to hoard pathways to wealth. He sends a letter of grievance to Plymouth’s investors, earning disfavor among powerful men, including Gov. William Bradford.

When Billington kills a newcomer over a land dispute, he sets off a course of violent retribution that is, itself, an opportunity for revenue. People travel from beyond the palisade in order to witness the gruesome scene of Billington’s eventual and inevitable punishment. Nesbit depicts the colony as a project as mercenary as it is ideological, if not more so. (William Bradford’s first wife, Dorothy, recalls seeing a whale: “A creature William laments he does not have the equipment to kill. All that oil. He means all that profit.”)

The prominence of female characters provides a refreshing filter through which to see a familiar history. Domestic labor is juxtaposed against the repulsive image of “bloody linen” mounted to the top of the meetinghouse as a warning. Alice names her daughter Mercy, it seems, to fill a significant void; but Alice herself is less than merciful when Billington’s wife, Eleanor, approaches her for help. Years later, Eleanor claims, “if there was any benevolence in a Bradford, it was in [Alice] and not her husband.”

The novel questions Alice’s benevolence, not only because she keeps her discomfort with aspects of the colony to herself, but also because she is haunted by memories of her husband’s first wife, Dorothy, who happened to be her best friend. As the novel progresses, Alice’s mind turns more and more often to Dorothy, whom she loved dearly, and to whom she broke numerous promises. The rumor among the colonists is that Dorothy killed herself. “I like to think I could have saved her,” Alice admits, though the truth is that she doesn’t permit any risk to her role as the governor’s wife. In this powerful work, Nesbit renders the past without muting its gravity.

Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature, LennyLetter, Narrative, the Millions, Harvard and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.

Beheld
By: TaraShea Nesbit.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 274 pages, $26.