Little Commonwealth: A Family Life in Plymouth Colony - John Demos, Demos

An absolutely fascinating attempt to elucidate the social structures within the family, and the experiences of family members, during the first seventy years of Plymouth Colony. The evidence is scanty, and consists mostly of such documents as wills and deeds and records of court cases; personal letters and journals are almost absent. Demos is very honest about what he doesn't know and scrupulous about attempting to find evidence for every one of his hypotheses, pointing out just what is speculative. Nonetheless, he gets very far, and comes up with a very clear picture of a society in which there simply were no institutions outside the family -- even in cases where courts had to step in to dispose the case of some individual, they did so by directing some family to do it internally.

From a modern point of view the society seems very oppressive, as there was essentially no privacy, no one was permitted to live outside a family, and moral misbehavior was constantly scrutinized and repressed. However, for anyone who can tolerate living like that, it provides belonging from birth to the grave, and a certainty about one's course in life, especially given that there were very few vocational choices; young people learned their parents' trade (farming) by participating in it from a very young age, and moved gradually and naturally to independence.

To some extent, Demos depended on extrapolating from psychological theory to figure out what the responses to social circumstances might have been; this of course is where evidence is most indirect. Usually his hypotheses were quite plausible, although one of the most central, that the way child-raising was conducted and the circumstances of family life led to a great concern and fascination with aggression, seemed also among the weakest to me.

Add to the fine subject matter a smooth writing style, and you have a book I'll want to read again.