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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. John Demos is a distinguished historian whose books - among them "Unredeemed Captive" and "Entertaining Satan" - have won some of the highest awards in the field. He stumbled on the subject of his new book, "The Heathen School," when he visited an old friend who lives in a small town in Connecticut, and the friend told him a strange story about a long-vanished local school. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Picture this: You're a young girl, living in a remote town in Connecticut in 1825. You've taken refuge in a neighbor's house and, as night falls, you peek out a widow to see your friends and family members assembling outdoors around two crude paintings. One is of a young white woman, you. The other painting is of a man, a Native American.

As church bells begin to toll, some of the townspeople carry forward fake bodies meant to represent you and the man in the painting. Someone else ignites a barrel of tar, and the effigies begin burning - an image of looming eternal damnation. You get the message: Stick with your own kind, or else.

This fantastical tableau sounds like something out of an early American version of "The Hunger Games," but it really took place. That frightened young girl, whose name was Harriet Gold, recollected that night in a letter which historian John Demos quotes in his engrossing new book, "The Heathen School."

The good townspeople of Cornwall, Connecticut carried out the ritual at a turning point moment when collective panic trumped piety. A few years earlier, in 1816, Cornwall had competed for the honor of hosting a cosmopolitan institution that would become a tourist attraction famous throughout early 19th century America.

Known familiarly as the Heathen School, it brought together young men from Hawaii, China, India and the Native American nations for the purpose of converting them to Christianity, and then sending them back as missionaries to their home countries. Of course, problems quickly arose with this early 19th century utopian scheme to evangelize the world. Some students found English too difficult to master and quit. Other students converted, returned home, and promptly went native again.

But the biggest problem with the venture - the one that really riled up the Cornwall community and doomed the Heathen School - was the perceived threat of race-mixing. In 1824, a young white woman named Sarah Northrup, who hailed from one of the most prominent families in town, married a student named John Ridge and moved with him to the Cherokee Nation in the state of Georgia.

Newspapers throughout Connecticut denounced Sarah as a squaw, and speculated in paranoid fashion that the Heathen School scholars aimed to make our daughters become nursing mothers to a race of mulattoes. The effigy burning ritual I just described was a response to news that Harriet Gold intended to marry a Cherokee student named Elias Boudinot. The bonfire and other threats didn't deter them. They married in 1826.

When John Demos came upon the story of the Heathen School it was presented to him as mere local lore. But, seasoned historian Demos recognized that there was a lot going on in that little schoolhouse. It gave him both a window into the early 19th century evangelical movement, as well as into shifting American attitudes toward racial mixing.

In one of the most intriguing sections of his book, Demos illuminates a more tolerant attitude toward intimate unions between whites and Native Americans - so-called, noble savages - in the earliest years of European colonization. For instance, he quotes an early historian of Virginia, who quipped that if colonists had tried intermarriage on a large scale the Indians would have been converted by this kind method. Those types of jokes would no longer be funny by the early 19th century.

Demos also intersperses his lively historical narrative with short, personal essays of on-the-road reportage, in which he travels to Hawaii, where some of the school's most famous students hailed from, as well to the Cherokee Nation home sites of the Boudinot and Ridge families. The home of John Ridge, his wife Sarah and their mixed-race children was a plantation. Ridge was a slave owner.

In the end, everyone was removed by the U.S. government and forced to embark on the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The racial ironies keep multiplying. "The Heathen School" is a provocative addition to recent narrative histories that explore how racial categories and attitudes have changed over time in America.

I'm thinking especially of a book like Linda Gordon's "The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction," which also reminds us that race is what people and institutions wish to make of it, and that what they make of it involves a hierarchy of power and privilege that some choose to challenge and other choose to abide.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Heathen School," by John Demos. You can read an excerpt on our website.

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