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Book Report: Court documents reveal historical truths

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I have ancestors who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the seventeenth century, so I'm always on the lookout for books, movies or plays about that fabled place. My interest lies in artistic recreations of a time long past, creations like Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," and movies like "Plymouth Adventure," where to my dismay I learned that Governor William Bradford's wife almost had an affair with the Mayflower's captain. I'm a descendant of Bradford, but thankfully not his wandering wife.

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Every once in a while, serious historians get their teeth into the colony and come up with something less romantic, but undeniably true because they base their creations on court documents and other unimpeachable evidence. Such a book is "Under Household Government" by M. Michelle Jarrett Morris (Harvard, $25). Subtitled "Sex and Family in Puritan Massachusetts," it's based on what actually happened back then, and not necessarily what Nathaniel Hawthorne dreamed up.

A wonderful example is the confession of one Elizabeth Pierce, who went for a walk and came home disconsolate. Here's her recorded testimony.

"last night wn shee wase coming home Benjamin Simonns wase aleaaning one the rayles and as I came near to him I being in the highwwaye hee came to mee and layed hould of mee I strove to get out of his hands but hee being stronger than I halled me into the bushes and threw mee downe I said to him Benjamin lett mee alone for it will bee boath sin and ashame to you and me as long as wee live but he said it wold be no shame to him yet I resisted as much as I Could; but hee being stronger than I forced me and did the acte to mee"

At the outset, the rape charge leveled at Simmons seems like an open and shut case, especially after a neighbor agreed with Elizabeth's testimony. But such was not the case. As historian Morris explained to readers what the rape law was like in Massachusetts back then, I was reminded of the brouhaha over what constituted rape in the debate during the election last November.

It turns out the same was true three hundred years ago. Some rapes were punishable by execution, in other cases, the rapist got off scot-free. Although "blasphemy" was always punishable by execution, rape was not. For example, if someone got raped out of earshot, the authorities were more likely to believe the accuser. But if the rape were performed in town, the authorities would wonder why the raped person didn't scream.

"Rape was a complicated crime, biblically speaking. The book of Deuteronomy prescribed death for the rape of a married or engaged woman, but it mandated that a man who raped a single woman could be forced to marry her."

The case of Elizabeth and Benjamin went on and on, eventually involving five interrelated families, with testimonials from relatives and enemies that Elizabeth told "fallse" stories, that she wasn't really penetrated, etc., etc.

It's almost time for basketball mania on the college level and second- through fifth-grade readers will enjoy "Hoop Genius," by award winning author John Coy, illustrations by Joe Morse (Carolrhoda, $16.95 cloth). It's the lavishly illustrated book and subtitled "How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball."

The inventor was James Naismith and the time was the Gay Nineties. After college graduation from McGill in Canada, he took a teaching job to discover his students didn't like the boring regimen of marching and calisthenics in a gym class he inherited from other teachers who had given up on them. He tries indoor football and indoor soccer (too rough) and finally fell on a sport inspired by an earlier game called "Duck on a Rock."

Naismith was honored at the Olympics in Germany in 1936. He died in 1939. Carolrhoda has cunningly reproduced the original typescript of Naismith's thirteen rules of basketball, which he had typed on and hung on the gymnasium wall in Springfield, Mass., in 1891.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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