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Reviewed by:
  • The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs by Emma Anderson
  • Michael F. Steltenkamp S.J.
The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs. By Emma Anderson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. 480pp. $39.95.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz advised writers to provide “thick description” when constructing an ethnography and Emma Anderson took his counsel to heart. She did so in this analysis of how the veneration of eight men evolved into their canonization as Catholic saints. These “North American martyrs” are the focus of her study, they being six Jesuit priests and two “donnés” (lay assistants) who died with their Huron converts at the hands of the Iroquois.

Like a novelist, she transports readers to Indian villages of seventeenth century New York, Ontario and Quebec – portraying well the actors and issues of a period not easy for moderns to comprehend. Dust jacket snippets affirm her as a “great storyteller” who has produced a “beautifully written book” in “exquisite, often sensuous detail.” This review joins that chorus of praise, and offers such a modest critique that it still leaves the work with a rating of four stars out of four.

On the down side (and beyond the author’s control) is the editorial policy of Harvard University Press (and others) to require endnotes instead of footnotes. To shift back and forth through several hundred pages is an unnecessary inconvenience. Also unfortunate is the lack of an alphabetized bibliography (although references are cited throughout the sixty-two pages of notes). Not so much a criticism as it is an observation, the book’s strength might frustrate readers who just seek a narrative of historical fact. Occasional editorial comments garnish Anderson’s recreation of the mindset and experience of individuals who came to an American wilderness that saw the sacrifice of many lives at the altars of religion and culture.

The book’s title perhaps intentionally invokes The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. This was A. F. C. Wallace’s classic that also addressed the Iroquois world (apart from its interaction with Jesuit personnel – during the same period and later). Her parallel goal [End Page 90] explains how and why eight Frenchmen were murdered by the Iroquois in 1649, and how their story took on a new life of its own.

How these men died is fairly well-established, but “why” is a topic ripe for conjecture. The author sets forth a number of competing positions, e.g., they were put to death because Indians hated missionary teachings (“in odium fidei”), because the missionaries sought martyrdom, because these Frenchmen were associated with their government, because of ill will on the part of some, because ritual killing of hostages related to Iroquoian theology, etc.

Some Christians might regard as quaint and primitive the global practice popularly but inaccurately known as “ancestor worship.” However, their own veneration of special forebears within the “communion of saints” is a variation on the same theme. The “afterlife” of the martyrs refers to how stories associated with their deaths led to canonization, and how their memory has been appropriated in diverse ways.

Chapter 5 is titled “Bones of Contention” and, like other chapters, could itself serve as the basis of another book. In describing the repatriation and reburial of Huron bones in a 1999 ceremony, Anderson illustrates the contemporary divide between Indians who consider themselves “traditionals” and those who belong to some Christian denomination. Contrary to what some of the former charge, this divide was not the motivation for killing missionaries in the seventeenth century.

As the length of this volume suggests, the topic is a broad one that Anderson does not exhaust. Of its many sub-topics that deserve a volume of their own, she addresses how two groups, motivated by their unique identities, have gravitated toward the martyr shrines. Immigrant Catholic Canadians from western India seem to celebrate their ethnic identity at the Midland, Ontario site while ultra-conservative “white” Catholics celebrate their pre-Vatican II theology and practice at Auriesville, New York. Church personnel permit or foster these appropriations just as church personnel canonized the eight European males (and excluded the devout Huron souls who likewise sacrificed their lives...


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pp. 90-92
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