The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower, or John Howland’s Good Fortune, by P.J. Lynch; Candlewick Press, $17.99, 64 pages, ages 7-10.
Here’s a Thanksgiving story that fully examines the adventure, faith, luck, and unity that defined the Pilgrims’ early days in America. Award-winning author and illustrator P.J. Lynch’s latest children’s book focuses on the life of John Howland (c.1591-1672), an indentured servant who sailed aboard the Mayflower and eventually became the executive assistant to John Carver, New Plymouth County’s first governor. Told in the first person, the fictionalized account of Howland’s crossing takes on a dramatic sense of urgency–England’s Separatist church members (they weren’t pilgrims yet) were being jailed and harassed, and though they had found religious asylum in Holland, church members feared a war with Spain would again put their community in peril.
Lynch details a journey that seems doomed from the get-go (the Mayflower’s sister ship, the Speedwell, never even crossed the Atlantic), and at times it looks like the group won’t make it. (Re-read the title. Howland actually fell off the Mayflower during a storm. That historical nugget inspired Lynch to write the book.) Though originally headed for Virginia, fierce storms bobbled the ship two hundred miles off course, to Cape Cod, where the weary travelers set ashore, where another adventure of survival awaited. Lynch’s gouache paintings expertly capture both the squalor of London and the wilderness of New England. (This is the first book Lynch has both written and illustrated.) Samoset, Squanto, and the great Wampanoag sachem Massasoit are also richly rendered, highlighting the peace these groups enjoyed throughout Howland’s long life. The feast scene is particularly warm, especially after reading about the unforgiving first winter. (Nearly half the settlers died, and lodgings were little more than canvas stretched wooden frames.) The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower also provides surprisingly relevant food for thought in our current debates over refugees seeking religious asylum. The author’s notes and bibliography offer further resources for learning more about this pivotal moment in history.