An elegant and thoughtful historical set in 17th-century Maryland.
The Chesapeake State had one of the most colorful and turbulent histories of the original 13 colonies. Settled in 1634 by Lord Baltimore, it was originally intended as a haven for Catholics fleeing persecution in England, and a large proportion of its founding fathers were Catholic aristocrats and Jesuit missionaries. The first colony to permit the free exercise of religion, it inspired resentment among its (Protestant) neighbors and was invaded by Puritans, who expelled the Jesuits and forbade Catholicism. Karlin, whose sixth novel this is (Prisoners, 1998, etc.), presents a fairly large cast, but it’s representative: the adventurer James Hallam (by turns mercenary, carpenter, indentured servant, and aspiring politician); the black slave Ezekiel (born in Dahomey and transported to Barbados, where he spares his master’s life in a slave uprising and is forced to flee for his own); the Piscataway Indian Tawzin (kidnapped as a child and carried away to England, where he is baptized as John Christman and later returns to Maryland a devout Catholic); the Jesuit scholar and missionary Father White (exhausted from years of religious exile from his native England); the Jewish trader Jacob Lambroso (a friend of Tawzin and Ezekiel), and, in the background, the large and influential Calvert family (founders and first governors of the colony). Although larger historical currents are present, this is a story of private lives first, focussing on the tribulations of the individual characters (as when Tawzin is falsely accused of abducting his own wife and brought to trial), and it succeeds admirably in making their lives credible and interesting. While, particularly in Ezekiel’s sections (“I thought then that Tawzin loved Lombroso as a wise son does who forgives his father for seeing a dream in his son’s fallible flesh and forming spirit”), the language can be overblown, for the most part it’s quite readable.
A nice portrait of an interesting (and underappreciated) time and place.