Lois Lenski was a prolific children’s writer who wrote “a collection of regional novels about children across the United States” and a number of historical novels about children of different periods of American history. In Puritan Adventure, Aunt Charity comes to a fictional colony in New England to live with her sister’s family, and she brings joy and kindness into the oppressive atmosphere of the Puritan colony, and especially to the colony’s children. Aunt Charity, to the dismay of the authorities in the colony, teaches the children to celebrate Christmas and Shrove Tuesday and May Day—with a maypole! Horrors!
Puritan Adventure gives the Puritans of seventeenth century New England a bad rap. The Puritans did outlaw the celebration of certain feasts, particularly Christmas because it was associated with drunkenness, and they did by necessity work hard and expect everyone in the household to work together for the sake of survival. However, the Puritans and other religious pilgrims who came to America in the seventeenth century were not quite the dour, frightened, suppressed people that Lenski’s book makes them out to be. They celebrated their own holidays and family times. They enjoyed their Sabbath rest and worship each Sunday. Puritan Richard Baxter wrote:
“All Christ’s ways of mercy tend to, and end in the saints’ joys. He wept, suffered, sorrowed that they might rejoice; He sendeth the Spirit to be their comforter; He multiplieth promises, he discovers their future happiness, that their joy may be full; He aboundeth to them in mercies of all sorts; He maketh them lie down in green pastures, He leadeth them by the still waters, yea, He openeth to them the fountain of living waters, that their joy may be full.”
Thomas Watson, another Puritan writer, said simply: “The more we enjoy of God, the more we are ravished with delight.”
So, Aunt Charity, with her idealization of Old England and its celebrations would likely have been looked upon as an anomaly in a Puritan colony, but not necessarily hounded and bought before the magistrate as she was in the book. And drunken celebrations would have been discouraged, but Aunt Charity’s child-centered Christmas and Shrove Tuesday celebrations would most likely have been looked upon as odd, but harmless. Neither Old England nor New England had a very child-centered culture. Children were little adults, given as much responsibility as they could possibly handle and sometimes more.
I don’t know what to recommend about Puritan Adventure. I will keep it in my library. Ms. Lenski was a great writer of children’s books, and she tells a good story in her novel of Puritan New England. However, that good story is based on a skewed idea of the Puritans’ joylessness. Maybe it would be a good book to read with children and to discuss. One could discuss the dangers of legalism and also the dangers of lawlessness, as exemplified by Patty, the servant girl. Readers could also talk about the misunderstanding that is prevalent today in regard to the difference between temporal pleasures and eternal joy. We should teach the children (and the adults) to choose joy every time—and to not be afraid of a little innocent pleasure.