Blood on the River: James Town 1607 by Elisa Carbone, 2006
The importance and fun of historical fiction is the ability to live in another time and place and understand something about that point in history. I've purchased fiction and nonfiction books about James Town and I've provided educational videos on the topic. I have studied the settlement along with the Entlings through elementary, junior high and high school, blah-blah-blah.
I have just finished Elisa Carbone's superb Blood on the River.
NOW I get it.
Other books have accurately and factually recounted the history of the James Town settlement but Carbone has brought it to life. Using real characters from the colony's registers, she has recreated a story that is an absolute page turner. We smell the stench of the ships and see the frost on the ground. The distrust between the English and the Wampanoag is palpable. The gnawing hunger, the "summer sickness" and the scent of wood fires is so strong, I felt like I was within the palisade walls.
Samuel Collier is bound as a page to Captain John Smith on the eve of his departure for Virginia. Sam's fierce temper and survival sense will be his undoing and his salvation in the new land. The perils of the voyage at sea and the political turmoil that plagued the expedition from the onset are vividly described. The useless "gentlemen" resent the common sense of John Smith and his lack of respect for his “betters.” Before they even arrive on Virginia's shores, the “gentlemen” have clapped Smith in irons and plan to hang him.
Sam clearly sees the issues confronting the colony and his loyalty to Smith serves him well. Smith teaches him to fight with a sword and how to use a musket. He also makes sure Sam is able to stay with a friendly tribe during the second winter so he can learn their language and survival skills instead of going hungry at the settlement. Sam revels in his time with the tribe, realizing their lifestyle is perfectly adapted to the harsh environment. He respects their traditions and their pride as a nation. It is with great reluctance that he returns to James Town when winter is over.
The reader fumes along with Sam at the stupidity of the Virginia Company. Their reliance on old world ideas of "gentlemen" leaders dooms many settlers to death. It is only when John Smith is voted on, by the colonists, to become their president that the colony's fortunes take a turn for the better. The story of Pocahontas is part of the storyline. Carbone chooses a likely version of her rescue of John Smith and depicts her as the child she really was at the time.
Now that I have traveled back to 1607 I can hardly wait to really visit Virginia someday and see the original site. Carbone includes excellent notes and suggestions for additional reading. She describes her research which was fascinating to read on its own.
I asked teachers and librarians for suggestions. "What would you most like to see a new novel about?" I asked. The answer came over and over: Jamestown.
I thought, "That old story? John Smith and Pocahontas AGAIN? Booooooring!"
In Carbone's hands -- boring? Not at all! This is some of the best historical fiction I have read since The Blood Red Horse. Highly recommended.