Peoples of a Spacious Land: Families and Cultures in Colonial New England. Gloria L. Main. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2001. 316 pp. ISBN 0-674-00628-3. $49.95 (cloth).
This is a book replete with useful information about family life in colonial New England. Gloria Main takes an unusually broad view, covering a large and diverse region encompassing what is now Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and southern Maine from prehistoric times through the middle of the 18th century. Unlike most monographs, the study also takes a comparative perspective that includes fascinating information about the Ninnimissinouk (an umbrella term for the Native Americans of the area) in addition to the English settlers. The bulk of the study is organized around stages of the human life cycle into chapters on sexuality, courtship, and marriage; childbirth and childhood; and youth and old age.
Although the book is too densely written to serve a popular audience, it works well as an upto-date overview of early New England family history for readers from other disciplines. Throughout the book, Main provides an intelligent synthesis of existing scholarship, and her dual focus on the English and Ninnimissinouk brings her to posit generalizations with cross-cultural implications. Unlike most historians, she usefully refers to contemporary socialscience literature and evolutionary theories. She often stretches her comparisons into examples from other times and places, and she frequently points to contrasts and similarities with the present. At times, her penchant for considering the broader human context can lead her astray: for example, her attempt to bring anthropological studies of the Ache of Paraguay to bear on the childrearing practices of the Ninnimissinouk and the English seem speculative in the extreme. But for the most part, her wide reach into different fields of inquiry greatly enriches her analysis.
From the point of view of a specialist, Main's greatest empirical contributions lie in the abundant material she gleans from the colonists' legal and genealogical records. Her evidence from probate records, in particular, reveals many new and intriguing pieces of information about changes in the consumption patterns, the movement toward more specialized types of household labor, and the variations in the degree of female literacy. Her analysis of vital records of births and marriages similarly yields valuable conclusions about the differences between male and female ages at marriage and the rates and seasonal timing of premarital pregnancies that supplement earlier findings by demographic historians. Bringing such otherwise dry materials to life, Main leavens her story with compelling, often amusing stories of individual lives drawn from documents like diaries and court records. …