A historical novel examines what might have happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
The author explores the fate of 16th-century English colonists on Roanoke Island (in what is now North Carolina). Abandoned by their captain, they fight Native Americans and hunger. Emily Colman, a comely lass, is courted by many men, including Hugh Tayler, an older colonist with a dubious past. In 2000, meanwhile, Allie O’Shay, a doctoral candidate in psychology, enlists the help of a professor to study her dreams about these settlers. Back in 16th-century America, her dreams reveal deteriorating conditions. Colonists and Native Americans commit atrocities against each other. When a Spanish man-of-war arrives off the coast, the settlers flee, only to endure a fatal shipwreck and an arduous overland trek. Settling near some friendly Chesapeake Indians, they rough it while awaiting help from England. Emily falls in love with a Lakota Sioux named Isna, who’s visiting the Chesapeakes. She discovers that Tayler is “evil to the core”—confirmed when he rapes her and tries to force her into marriage by threatening to kill her friend’s baby. Eventually, Isna wounds Tayler, who’s later killed by a war party of Powhatans on its way to wiping out the colonists. But Isna and Emily manage to escape. In the 21st century, Allie realizes she’s dreaming about her family’s history, just as some of her female forebears have done, and that they’re Isna and Emily’s descendants. This sprawling novel, based on Rhynard’s 1991 YA book with the same title, is ambitious but not completely successful. He’s at his best when describing 16th-century folkways, providing detailed accounts of everyday lives, down to making bayberry candles and pemmican. His main Colonial characters are well-drawn, and their story is engrossing, action-packed, and well-plotted. But weaving in modern-day Allie and telling the tale through the lens of her dreams becomes distracting. Allie’s storyline seems superfluous in a 785-page tome. Modern characters’ dialogue can be trite, and the 16th-century dialogue, though better, contains too much exposition and an occasional howler (a colonist crying, “Fate, shmate!”). Rhynard also exhibits an unfortunate weakness for clichés such as “the writing was on the wall” and overuses silly similes: “like a millipede stampede.” The novel would have worked better as a purely historical speculation.
While hampered by modern-day babbling about dream theory, this Colonial tale still delivers engaging characters and an energetic plot.