Book Review: 1621, A New Look At Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers! Last year, I shared one of my new favorite Thanksgiving themed books by Melissa Sweet, Balloons Over Broadway, that celebrates the famous parade and its history. It was again a big hit at this year’s storytime. This year, my mind has been struggling with some different feelings about what used to be a favorite holiday. With my broadening education about the continual stereotyping of Native people in picture books, I’ve become quite disheartened towards typical Thanksgiving picture books with their constant questionable portrayals of “Indians” and misrepresentation of “the first Thanksgiving.” Not wanting to disdain the holiday completely, I am striving to take Debbie Reese’s comment to heart and even beyond books: “Sometimes I think that Thanksgiving books for young children should just focus on things people are grateful for.”

So I am focusing as much as possible on being thankful. But at the same time, I’m also intrigued to find books that discuss the issues about the common misrepresentation of a happy feast with a disproportionate grouping of “Pilgrims” and “Indians.” This is the first that I have pored over and learned so much from. I am incredibly excited to share such a great resource. Join me as I glean information from 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac with Plimoth Plantation, 2001.

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The book is the size of a typical picture book, but it is much more dense. The publisher’s recommended age is 8-12 and I’m guessing that is about right, although I’d be more inclined to say 8 and up considering our country’s desperate need of rethinking how and what we celebrate. It is not a terribly long read and it is broken into sections or chapters that discuss the research and much more historically accurate events that surrounded 1621.

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The front flap of the book states “True history includes the voices of all its participants. Read, listen, and think about our shared history.” That is truly the heart of the book. The authors and Plimoth Plantation have set out to put aside the myth of Thanksgiving and use historical letters and the lost voices of the Wampanoag people to piece together a more accurate idea of what the supposed first Thanksgiving would have really looked like.

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A few key ideas that I have learned from this excellent book are things like:

  • The “first Thanksgiving” was closer to three days of feasting rather than one large meal.
  • There were no “Pilgrims” at that time and they wouldn’t have been wearing the quintessential black outfits with buckles and hats.
  • The Wampanoags outnumbered the colonists by quite a bit and were guests of honor, not sideline participants.
  • 19th-century painters, ads and misinformed people have perpetuated the myth we continue to depict, mimic and decorate.
  • President Lincoln declared two national Thanksgivings during the Civil War in 1863 – one in August commemorating the Battle of Gettysburg, and one in November to give thanks for “general blessings.” The idea of Pilgrims inviting Native people to commune with them in peace was a comforting story to create during the wartime turmoil.
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Perhaps those things aren’t earth-shattering to many readers here, but the facts and ideas presented clearly and beautifully in this book have greatly reshaped the way I think about this “historical” day and especially the way and what I want to celebrate on the last Thursday of November each year. I still love some of our traditional fare that has been passed down like mashed potatoes, cranberries, and pumpkin pie; but I can now look at them more wisely and see them as a part of my cultural history, not the holiday’s. The book also includes two recipes that I’m sincerely hoping to try for our celebrations: a traditional Wampanoag dish and a “Standing Dish” for the colonists which would have been more likely to show up on the table.

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Thanks to this book and its marvelous role-playing images by the National Geographic Society and Plimoth Plantation, I am gaining a slightly better perspective on our nation’s holiday. I’m thankful that I can more carefully observe the day with my family and strive to understand history and its impact a little more, even if that means I cringe at every “Pilgrim and Indian” image I come across in the stores, books, and even the parade! Thankfulness is what this day needs to be about. Thankful for a corrected perspective. Thankful for all the many blessings I enjoy each day. And thankful for picture books as always! So happy Thanksgiving to you and your family and may you have many blessings to count!

2 thoughts on “Book Review: 1621, A New Look At Thanksgiving

  1. We read this book last year, and I was very impressed. I love this one, and look forward to revisiting it when my daughters are a bit older. We did check out Balloons Over Broadway this year, and I read it to my oldest’s second grade class. It was a big hit! It made watching the parade on TV even more fun this year.


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