An ambitious novel about the New World examines a complex historical figure, a master metallurgist.
Stainer (The Lyon’s Crown, 2004, etc.) embraces Tidewater Virginia/North Carolina 400 years ago as her special bailiwick. Here we have an expedition that Sir Walter Raleigh bankrolled in 1585, seeking to unearth copper in Virginia. Thus we find Joachim Gans (aka Dougham Gaunse), the foremost metallurgist of the age, among the Colonial party, along with his 12-year-old apprentice, Reis Courtney. The search for copper ultimately fails, but Reis, a tough kid and in awe of his master, still discovers plenty of adventure. Joachim becomes a kind, willing teacher to Reis. Others in the party, especially the Germans, express no love for Joachim because he is Jewish. The old canards surface: Jews killed Christ; they drink the blood of children; etc. Little Jeremie, another apprentice, believes these stories. Reis doesn’t, but he remains curious about this private man who prays in Hebrew, refuses to eat meat (because it’s not kosher), and wears a silver Magen David. The diverse characters include Erhart Greutter, a bigot who continuously taunts Joachim; the renowned mathematician Thomas Hariot, who tries valiantly to keep the peace; and the Native American chief Pemisapan, who turns against the colonists. At one point, the chief’s forces capture a group of colonists, including Joachim and his apprentice—can the metallurgist save himself and Reis? A fierce battle ultimately ensues, but the real story concerns the gruff affection between Joachim and Reis and the apprentice’s maturation in a world that encourages age-old hatreds. This smoothly written, well-paced novel deftly handles the historical and fictional characters and perennial themes. The empathetic book’s first sentence is “Me master beat me yesterday.” That is said by 9-year-old Jeremie (who later contracts ague). This wonderful dramatic opening, a real heart-tugger, shows in a bleak five words what times were like in the New World, especially for youngsters sold into apprenticeship by their desperate parents. (Reis, in effect an orphan, volunteers for the position.) But Joachim and Reis’ evolving father-son relationship becomes the most touching aspect of the lucid, evocative narrative. When Reis thinks he has made a mistake or overstepped his bounds, he feels deeply ashamed, a mark of adolescent love.
A subtle, sensitive tale
about struggling colonists that is a vivid contribution to its literary genre.