Next time, lay offe ye olde idiom

Author's miscues turn Jamestown's fascination into an `intriguing failure'

Review Historical fiction

December 10, 2006|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

The Weight of Smoke: A Novel of the Jamestown Colony

George Robert Minkoff

McPherson & Company / 392 pages / $24.95

One of the most compelling stories of early Colonial American history is that of the establishment of the Jamestown Colony. On May 14, 1607, the Virginia Company explorers, funded by a charter by King James I of England, landed on Jamestown Island. They were there to establish an English colony on the banks of the James River, in what is now Virginia, and settle the New World - and mine its untold riches - for England. Jamestown is second only to St. Augustine, Fla., as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in America.

Capt. John Smith - English soldier, sailor, adventurer, memoirist and ethnographer (some would also add braggart) - is credited with establishing the first permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown. He ran the ill-fated colony with 104 English settlers. A year later, only 38 were still alive, the conditions at Jamestown were so grim and the settlers so ill-prepared and, apparently, so unwilling to work hard. Smith's leadership is widely considered to have kept those remaining settlers alive, in part due to his establishing relationships with local Native American tribes. In staking the claim to the land and being so steadfast, he made it possible for others to come and join the colony so it thrived instead of dying out.

Jamestown's early crises mimicked those of the mysterious Roanoke colony, in which all 117 settlers disappeared without a trace. (The author touches on this.) Smith had determined that he would not allow the same fate to befall "his" colony. He prevailed and Jamestown survived.

The first two years were the most harrowing, and in The Weight of Smoke, George Robert Minkoff's debut novel, the first in a trilogy entitled In the Land of Whispers, that grim existence is illumined.

The Weight of Smoke purports to be the chronicle of the first two years of the colony as revealed by Smith's secret diaries. In those diaries, Smith details the bitter and retaliatory in-fighting of the colonists, their hardscrabble lives, his quest to become renowned as an explorer like Sir Francis Drake and his complex interaction with Chief Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas.

Tales of Drake and his exploits, as told by an ancient mariner, Jonas Profit, Smith's shipmate, are also a mainstay of the novel. These ruminations expand the history from Jamestown back a half-century or more to when Europe first got a taste for conquering the Americas. Drake is revered by Smith (and Profit), who yearns to be just like him - part gold-digger, part altruistic social engineer. Added to the mix is the subtextual romance between Smith and Pocahontas. It's heavy going.

Historical fiction is always dicey territory, yet the lure of larger-than-life figures like Smith draws many a writer into its tempting snare. Minkoff has spent four decades as an antiquarian and rare book dealer; he has exhaustively researched his topic. Alas, the result is as fraught as that first Jamestown winter.

The Weight of Smoke has all the pieces of a good historical novel: Minkoff's exhaustive research, a good underlying story and love of subject. Put it all together and you have an epic tale. Ah, but then there's the writing.

One peril in historical fiction is always language: Prithee how to depict the vernacular of yore? Aye, matey, there's the rub. Shakespeare is one thing, forced and extended Jacobean dialogue/dialect quite another.

"How full Hawkins was with himself, to be so hollow. He was filled with that determined worm of joy which, as the sea slug, invades all things, even the rotten cargoes, with the shadow of itself." Indeed.

The language is not always ponderous, but enough so to drag down the narrative and kill the tension. Minkoff eschews the larger - and quite exciting - story of Smith's involvement with Jamestown for minutiae and a great deal of carping and whining.

Yet Smith was a huge force in the settling of the New World by Europeans. (He went on to "discover" and name New England.) Minkoff cannot decide whom he wants as the star of this part of his trilogy - he's torn between Smith and Drake, and then he also really likes the Pocahontas thread.

What's lacking, at times, is focus. Minkoff adopts the style of James Fenimore Cooper (there are marvelous chapter titles like: "A war not war, death not death, a trial by rumor and a fort") and in places the novel reads like Cooper. But it simply doesn't achieve the dramatic tension it should have (or that Cooper has in a similar novel, The Last of the Mohicans) and it ends tremendously abruptly, missing all but a final "to be continued" line replete with ellipses. Even in a series, closure on each individual novel is paramount for the reader. Ask J.K. Rowling. (There's plenty of foreshadowing of the next installment, however irritating it may feel to the reader. Coming soon: tobacco!)

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