American Gods

American Gods

American Gods Coming to America. 1721. Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The chapter opens with an unexplained author named Mr. Ibis” writing about the “fiction” of American history, in which all people see the freedom that they wish. Those in London during the 18th century saw it as a second chance, even if getting to America meant accepting transportation as an indentured servant. Ibis writes specifically about Essie Tregowan, a woman who was originally from Cornwall and was born to a fisherman and a cook. Essie worked as a scullery maid and believed fervently in the legend of leaving a saucer of milk outside every night for the piskies (small mischievous spirits).
America, much like Shadow, has the power to encompass many points of view depending on what one wants to see. Additionally, American history expands with each new culture that comes to the country, meaning that history as we tell it could never include enough detail to tell the full story. The dream of America as a place to start over is repeated again and again, though the gods brought here with these people seem more likely to repeat their same mistakes.
Themes
Mythology, Belief, and Community Theme Icon
Change and Growth Theme Icon
Deception Theme Icon
Plurality and the Power of the Individual in America Theme Icon
As a teenager, Essie fell in love with the son of the squire she worked for and performed a charm so that the son would love her as well. Essie gets pregnant by the squire’s son, and the squire’s family angrily dismisses her from her position. Essie gets her job back once the baby is born stillborn, but is crushed when the squire’s son wants nothing to do with her. Harboring a new hatred for the squire’s family, Essie lets her latest beau in at night to steal from the squire. Essie’s lover is caught and hanged, and Essie herself is sentenced to seven years of “transportation”—meaning that she must travel to America and serve as an indentured servant for seven years. Essie wins the heart of the sea captain who takes her to the Carolinas, comes back to London as the captain’s wife, then runs away with the captain’s valuables the next time the captain is away on a voyage.
Essie continually reinvents herself, deceiving those around her into thinking that she is whatever she needs to be in order to get ahead. As with the gods who beg, steal, and lie in order to survive, Essie seems to care little for the feelings of those around her. She also uses magic, leveraging her belief in the piskies for a love charm that will win her the heart of the boy she wants, rather than trying to have an honest relationship. Essie is so scared of death that seven years’ transportation, though a harsh sentence, is infinitely preferable to staying in England.
Themes
Change and Growth Theme Icon
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Over the next two years, Essie lives as a shoplifter and pickpocket, always remembering to put out a bowl of milk for the piskies in order to ensure her good fortune. But when Essie is 19, she has the bad luck to try to pickpocket the very same squire’s son she had originally seduced. She is taken to Newgate and sentenced to hang until she is found to be pregnant once more. The judge softens the sentence to transportation for life. Essie endures a nightmarish voyage and makes it to Norfolk, Virginia, where she is bought by the tobacco farmer John Richardson, who needs a wet nurse after his own wife died giving birth to his daughter Phyllida.
Essie continues to pay homage to the piskies, winning herself their favor when it counts. The piskies are changeable fairy-like creatures in Cornwall who will both help and harm humans on a whim. In this case, the piskies let Essie get caught, but also seem to have a hand in reducing her sentence from death to servitude for life. Essie again takes this in stride, preferring anything over death, and again tricks a man into giving her what she wants – in this case a home and a job in America.
Themes
Mythology, Belief, and Community Theme Icon
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Essie has a baby boy and names him Anthony “after his father,” knowing that no one in Norfolk can contradict her story. Essie acts as a mother to John’s children, telling them all the stories of the piskies that she grew up hearing. Essie continues to put out a bowl of milk each night and John’s farm prospers. After 8 months, John comes to Essie’s bedroom hoping to gain sexual favors, and Essie pretends to be shocked that he would take advantage of a widow-woman and a servant. John is so flustered by Essie’s tears that he ends up proposing marriage to her.
Anthony may very well be named for his father, as Mr. Ibis has not yet revealed who Anthony’s father is. Yet Essie takes advantage of this new start to reinvent herself once more, showing the same shapeshifting and lying abilities that the piskies are said to have. This time, Essie morphs herself into a respectable woman, though she continues to believe in the piskies and pass them down to the next generation, thereby ensuring that they have enough belief to survive in America.
Themes
Mythology, Belief, and Community Theme Icon
Change and Growth Theme Icon
Plurality and the Power of the Individual in America Theme Icon
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Essie and John get married and Essie bears John a son, naming him John Jr. for his father, and all three children grow up following the rituals that Essie teaches them to keep the piskies happy. After Essie and John have been married for 10 years, John dies of a toothache. Essie manages the farm herself for another 10 years, when Anthony then kills John Jr. in a struggle over who will inherit the farm and win Phyllida’s hand in marriage. Anthony flees Virginia to avoid trial and a heart-broken Phyllida marries a ship’s carpenter so that there will be a man on the farm. Essie continues to tell the stories of the piskies to Phyllida’s children, but this generation only wants modern tales like “Jack and the beanstalk.”
Essie is one of few characters who truly benefits from her association with gods, gaining a prosperous farm due to her careful attention to the piskies. Yet the piskies are not able to keep her completely safe from tragedy, showing that gods are not all-powerful in America (if anywhere). The fight between Anthony, conceived in the Old Country, and John Jr., conceived in America, forms a microcosm of the fight between the Old Gods and the New Gods, as each group struggles to eliminate the other so that they can dominate the hearts and minds of the American people. Meanwhile, Americans show a natural inclination away from gods, as the third generation of children raised completely on American soil has no time for gods from the old country.
Themes
Mythology, Belief, and Community Theme Icon
Change and Growth Theme Icon
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Plurality and the Power of the Individual in America Theme Icon
The Sacredness of American Land Theme Icon
One May, an elderly Essie takes a bag of peas out to the kitchen garden to shuck them. Her mind ranges back to her childhood in Cornwall, then to her time as a pickpocket, and finally to how she had forced herself to have sex with the warden at Newgate prison so that she could escape death via a pregnancy. Her thoughts are interrupted by a red-haired man dressed all in green, and Essie realizes that this man is a Cornishman (called a “cousin Jack” in America). The red-haired man laments how much harder life is in America than in his native Cornwall, but thanks Essie for bringing him and his kind to America. The red-haired man asks for Essie’s hand, and she takes it. Essie’s family later finds her body, still holding the bag of peas.
At the end of her life, Essie reveals that she actually took matters of her life into her own hands, actively deciding to get pregnant so that she would not be hanged. Essie, like the gods Wednesday and Bilquis, used sex as a method of escaping death, and not as an expression of love or lust. Just as Essie regrets some of her harder life choices, the piskies to whom Essie was so diligent are also less than grateful that they have to live in America where children would rather hear about a made-up Jack than the “Cousin Jack” of their Cornish heritage. Yet the relationship between Essie and the piskies is still one of the more positive god-human relationships of the book.
Themes
Mythology, Belief, and Community Theme Icon
Change and Growth Theme Icon
Life, Death, Desire, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
The Sacredness of American Land Theme Icon