It’s 1656. A former soldier in Oliver Cromwell’s Army of the Saints makes his way to London. Rhisiart Dafydd is, as his name suggests, of Welsh extraction. He’s coming to London at the request of his former commanding officer, Colonel John Powel, who wants him to undertake an assignment – in America.
Reports have filtered back to Powel that a Welsh Calvinist settlement in the forest wilderness has slipped into heresy, but of what kind isn’t known. Or even of the reports are true. Why should this even matter in Cromwellian England? Because Powel sees the end of the regime coming; it has not brought the expected heaven on earth, and the settlement in America was supposed be something better, something more permanent.
Religion in the 1650s was taken far more seriously. After all, it played a huge role in the civil war that ended in the beheading of a king. And the wilderness settlement is named New Jerusalem.
Daffyd sails to America, only to be the sole survivor (with a cat) of a shipwreck during a storm right off the coast. He’s cared for by a Native American tribe, who eventually help him reach an English settlement. The tribe also provides him with a map to what is likely New Jerusalem. And Daffyd will follow the map, carrying with him his own doubts of faith, his horrific experiences with Cromwell’s army in Ireland, and what he saw happen at the Battle of Naseby (1645), the last major battle of the civil war. What he originally believed has been undermined by these events; he stil has faith but it is different than what he carried with him into war.
Dark Territory by Jerry Hunter was originally published in Welsh and translated into English by Patrick Ford. Hunter is an American who moved to Wales, where he is currently a professor in the School of Welsh and deputy vice chancellor of Bangor University. Almost all of his previously published works are in Welsh, which is something to regret, based on Dark Territory.
Hunter has written a study of the use of prophecy as propaganda during the Tudor period, a history of the American Civil War based on Welsh accounts and letters on both sides of the conflict, and a biography of the Welsh-American abolitionist Robert Everett. He’s written a children’s book and four adult novels, including Dark Territory. He received a B.A. degree from the University of Cincinnati, a Master of Philosophy degree from the University of Aberystwyth, and a Ph.D. degree from Harvard.
Dark Territory doesn’t follow a standard chronological narrative. It begins by alternating Daffyd’s meeting in London with Powel and Daffyd trying to survive the shipwreck in America. It then moves to Daffyd’s life, and how he came to be a soldier in Cromwell’s Army. And then Hunter tells the story of Daffyd in America and New Jerusalem. What this weaving and interweaving of different periods of time produces is an account of a life where past continues to shape present and future.
It’s one of the best historical novels I’ve read. Period. Hunter places you right in the middle of what’s happening to Daffyd. You see the massacres in Ireland. You experience the “little plague” in 1647. You sail to America on a creaking ship and you struggle to survive its breaking up on rocks. And you walk with Daffyd into the wilderness to find New Jerusalem.
And you come away with an understanding of the religious turmoil of the 1640s and 1650s, how that played out in both England and America, and how it shaped the life of a man.
Top illustration: Battle of Naseby, hand-colored copper engraving by Dupuis after Parrocel, 1727.