Antiquarian-books dealer Minkoff chronicles the founding of the Virginia colony, sometimes too exhaustively, in this first volume of the planned In the Land of Whispers trilogy.
Here we meet the major players, including Captain John Smith, Native American emperor Powhatan and his favorite daughter, Pocahontas. Casting his formidable shadow over the privately financed establishment of Jamestown in 1607 is Sir Francis Drake, whose late-16th-century exploits are related as extended campfire yarns by an ancient mariner, Drake’s erstwhile shipmate, Jonas Profit. Captain John Smith (his rank was earned while fighting the Turks for Zsigmond, King of Transylvania) is rankled by his fellow Englishmen’s sloth and preening sense of privilege. Gentlemen among the would-be colonists shun work, so constructing fortifications and shelter, cultivating crops and dealing with the vassal tribes of duplicitous Chief Powhatan are largely left to Smith and his embattled supporters. Although appointed by investors as one of a seven-member colonial council, he’s under accusation of mutiny for volunteering advice during the crossing to America. Ratcliffe, gentleman avatar of rapacious, exploitative colonialism, challenges Smith for control of the settlement. Drake, a humanitarian revered by Smith and Profit, manages to steal Spanish gold and grow fabulously rich while also acting as an avenging angel for the Spaniard-oppressed African slaves and indigenous peoples of Panama. When Drake is aided by the Cimarrones, a band of escaped slaves, he gives them the future site of the Roanoke colony as refuge. No trace of Roanoke remains other than rumors among Chesapeake tribes of the so-called Ocanahonan. Smith yearns chastely for Pocahontas (not really jailbait, he assures us), becomes a sub-chief, or werowance, and decamps on explorations even though he knows Jamestown will starve without his practical know-how. At the end, he’s resisting (though not very strenuously) deification by a new tribe.
Ornate, Shakespeare-esque diction often subverts clarity. But such meticulously researched throat-clearing may lure readers to the future installments, in which the straggly threads of narrative introduced here will, one hopes, come together.