I, Roger Williams
Mary Lee Settle
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I, Roger Williams

Mary Lee Settle
W.W. Norton
320 pages
September 2002
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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The biographical novel I, Roger Williams chronicles the exceptional life of an extraordinary man whose many years on earth burn with passionate concern for the common man, most often the underdog who needs a noble figure of such erudition to champion the often unpopular causes of the disenfranchised. Absorbing invaluable knowledge and experience from some of the most powerful men in seventeenth-century England, Williams is much favored for his talents by scholars, lawyers and clergy, but listens to a different drummer, following his own conscience.

Born in Smithfield around 1603, Williams possesses an intelligence that affords him opportunities above his family's station as poor tradesmen. Sir Edward Coke accepts Williams under his tutelage when Williams' uncanny ear for languages is brought to his attention. As Coke's secretary, Williams excels on many levels, a witness to significant events in English politics, his poverty-riddled background a thing of the past. Coke falls into disfavor with the king, James I, and Williams stands in, trained as his mentor's eyes and ears in the infamous Star Chamber, recording judgments and all manner of application of the law.

The idealistic Roger Williams is struck by the outrageous discrepancies of the law regarding rich and poor, perhaps due to memories of his own poverty and humble circumstances of birth. With a true love of mankind, he is drawn to the clergy as a better way to serve, but is soon disenchanted by the inherent corruption, secularism, elitism and luxury. These same clergymen protect their wealth at the expense of those to whom they are meant to minister. Again, Williams must reevaluate his choice of career. Realizing the futility of his love for a woman far above his station, along with the rejection of his radical political ideals and disgust for a corrupted church, Williams' battered heart is burdened beyond endurance. He travels to America, to New England and the religion of the Puritans, hoping to find a more godly and satisfying life.

Along with a newly acquired wife, Williams exports his radical ideas to America. To his dismay, he discovers that the spiritual poverty that so devastated him in England exists in America as well. The rigid Puritans are just as cold and unyielding to the "godless" Native Americans. As the clergy burned heretics in England, so do the colonists perpetrate annihilation of an entire indigenous culture. Ironically, the Indians become Williams' most trusted and treasured friends, with their attention to the common good, respect for their gods and reverence for the land they occupy. Banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Williams escapes and later establishes the colony of Rhode Island, eventually obtaining a charter from England.

Author Mary Lee Settle calls up a vital and important era, one that includes James I (of the King James Bible), Oliver Cromwell, John Smith and more, the figures who dominate the historical literature of their century, as well as the earliest colonies settled in the Americas. By design, the author uses the language of the times, replete with musings and excessive verbiage at a time when the more words used, the more impressive the statement. Thus could the educated man display his learning and superior station. The archaic language is really the only drawback in a novel of an extraordinary man who lived in an extraordinary time. For many, the affectation of language will add to the authenticity of this historical fiction, the tale of one man's struggle to preserve freedom of thought and worship, separation of church and state for the good of all mankind.

© 2003 by Luan Gaines for Curled Up With a Good Book

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