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The Heathen School: Book summary and reviews of The Heathen School by John Demos

The Heathen School

A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic

by John Demos

The Heathen School by John Demos X
The Heathen School by John Demos
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Book Summary

The astonishing story of a unique missionary project - and the America it embodied - from award-winning historian John Demos.

Near the start of the nineteenth century, as the newly established United States looked outward toward the wider world, a group of eminent Protestant ministers formed a grand scheme for gathering the rest of mankind into the redemptive fold of Christianity and "civilization." Its core element was a special school for "heathen youth" drawn from all parts of the earth, including the Pacific Islands, China, India, and, increasingly, the native nations of North America. If all went well, graduates would return to join similar projects in their respective homelands. For some years, the school prospered, indeed became quite famous.  However, when two Cherokee students courted and married local women, public resolve - and fundamental ideals - were put to a severe test. 

The Heathen School follows the progress, and the demise, of this first true melting pot through the lives of individual students: among them, Henry Obookiah, a young Hawaiian who ran away from home and worked as a seaman in the China Trade before ending up in New England; John Ridge, son of a powerful Cherokee chief and subsequently a leader in the process of Indian "removal"; and Elias Boudinot, editor of the first newspaper published by and for Native Americans. From its birth as a beacon of hope for universal "salvation," the heathen school descends into bitter controversy, as American racial attitudes harden and intensify. Instead of encouraging reconciliation, the school exposes the limits of tolerance and sets off a chain of events that will culminate tragically in the Trail of Tears. 

In The Heathen School, John Demos marshals his deep empathy and feel for the textures of history to tell a moving story of families and communities - and to probe the very roots of American identity.  

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. A slow-building saga that delivers a powerful final wallop." - Kirkus

"Starred Review. This brilliant work is highly recommended for all who study American history." - Library Journal

"His research is characteristically prodigious, his writing disarming, and his story captivating and of national resonance. However, his first-person usage...and strange typographical mannerisms...blemish a marvelous story that needed no such embellishments." - Publishers Weekly

"A splendidly nuanced, wholly absorbing tale; patiently, brilliantly, John Demos coaxes unexpected lessons from a singular collision of enlightenment and assimilation." - Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Cleopatra: A Life

"The best of intentions have the worst of consequences in this story, and the tragedies that almost inevitably ensue are like tombstones telling the saddest story of all. In my judgment, no one know how to manage this material as well as Demos, disdaining moralistic judgments and condescending appraisals in favor of an elegiac tone that makes us all complicitous in 'the tragedy.'" - Joseph J. Ellis, author of Revolutionary Summer

"This moving, engrossing history of an early American experiment in multicultural education charts the collision between soaring aims and human limitations...Embedding personal stories in the long history of Anglo-Americans encounter with 'others,' Demos weaves a compelling tale that invites us to reflect on the meaning of the nation's struggles towards equality." - Richard D. Brown, author of The Strength of a People

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Author Information

John Demos

John Demos is the Samuel Knight Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University. His previous books includeThe Unredeemed Captive, which won the Francis Parkman Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Entertaining Satan, which won the Bancroft Prize. He lives in Tyringham, MA.

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