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The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs
The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs
Emma Anderson
Harvard University Press, 2013
480 pp., $42.00

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Danae Jacobson


Making Meanings of Martyrdom

The cult of "the North American martyrs."

As a historian, Emma Anderson has taken on an exceedingly difficult task. She wants to complicate the discourse (extending over a period of almost 400 years) surrounding a particular instance of martyrdom: the killing of eight Jesuit missionaries to North America by Native people. These Jesuits—collectively known as "the North American martyrs"—are not so well known today, even among Catholics, as they once were. Hence Anderson must re-narrate the tradition, so to speak, as she critiques it. She does so, in part, by breaking away (at intervals) from the conventions of dispassionate historical analysis:

Below, others had already begun to feast …. Flapping their glossy feathers, they poked at the frozen forms with their sharp beaks, black eyes glinting. Some tugged, obscenely, at human intestines. Bending back their dark heads, they pulled the red ribbons taut, as if doing up a bloody bodice. Death had made no distinction among those who fell during the sacking of Taenhatentaron. Nor did the snow that covered them during the tiptoeing night …. The ravens did not distinguish between saint and sinner, murdered or martyred, as they feasted indiscriminately, glad for a meal in the scarcity of a Canadian March, whose bleakness always belies spring's coming. No, it is only people who have made distinctions among these fallen.

This is but one notable example of how Anderson invites her readers into the narrative she expertly crafts. Though some historians will balk at her emotive approach, Anderson states her intention at the outset: "This book seeks to evoke as well as to inform, objectives that I see as being so complementary as to be virtually two aspects of the same thing. In my view, trenchant analysis need not preclude vivid description, nor thinking eclipse sensing and feeling."

With this framework in place, she proceeds to tell the story of the eight men who, in 1930, became North America's first canonized saints. Beginning with their deaths in ...

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