The settlement of Roanoke Island in 1585 was intended to be the first permanent English foothold in the New World. The land of plenty would feed the people who would be glad to work hard and prosper. It would be supplied regularly by ship from England, and more settlers would come to join the lucky first band. They would live in harmony with the native inhabitants, bartering trinkets for corn, and converting their grateful neighbours to Christianity. It was a dream of Raleigh's, to give his country an advantage in the northern part of what we know as America while Spain held the more southerly part.
The dream was, as such things are, perfect on paper. It took no account of the tempers or types of the would-be settlers. They all had their own reasons for going, some probably more worthy than others, but from the moment of landing, tensions began to appear.
It must be remembered that this is a work of fiction, based on what little is known about the people involved and what happened there until Governor White left in 1587, the last eyewitness to life at Roanoke. By the time he returned in 1590 nothing remained of the settlement or the more than one hundred men, women and children of all degrees who had made it their home. Clayton takes a handful of them, builds stories around them, and gives them voice. They live, they love, they give birth, they sicken and die, all in a very short span of time. Among them are wealthy Devon men, there for gold alone; the Governor of the new colony, who is an artist and mapmaker; a young Irishwoman fleeing an unfair accusation; and two young 'savage' men who had been taken to England a few years before, and who are there to act as translators. There are also young families to populate this new extension of the Queen's realm.
Voice is also given to the different tribes who were affected by the intrusion into their lands by the strange people who came from the sea. They are pictured in all their variety, from the peaceful to the more aggressive, from those who believed in harmony, and those for whom the first betrayal was the spark for a war of attrition.
The novel moves back and forth between Roanoke and England to detail concurrent events at opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, in particular the growing threat of the Spanish Armada and the subsequent blocking of the vital revictualling ships. There's no glimmer of hope in what rapidly becomes an essay in futility and dashed hopes. At its simplest, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The characters grow as their experiences require of them, while the aura of threat – from starvation, disease, and enemies within and without the palisades– hangs over the whole. If the reader knows the true story (as far as it can be known) of Roanoke, perhaps some aspects are explained. Even in the fictionalised version, hope dies hard as their abandonment becomes more daily obvious, as it must have done.
The end of Roanoke as Clayton writes it is an invention made for the people as he has created them, but it has to remain faithful to certain facts. That apart, this is a well-written, well-researched novel of a desperate and short-lived experiment which was overtaken by events beyond its control.
Right at the end, in the Afterword: the author says, referring to a search in 1607, '...try as they might, Smith and the Jamestown settlers could find no trace of the English people left behind at Roanoke. And so they disappeared, living on only as legend or as a page or two in the history books - until now.' This implies, however tongue in cheek, that what's been told in these pages is true, which it isn't: it's a blend of what little is known to be fact up to 1587, and is fiction for all the rest. The novel is a possible scenario with a possible outcome for the characters as the author creates them.
It's also a book where everything for the characters is hard going, a struggle, a fight for survival which is ultimately lost, and that will not appeal to many readers. On the other hand, there are as many who will know the story of Roanoke and will enjoy this look into the pretty accurate historical setting which forms the backdrop to the events as portrayed. Clearly Clayton knows his history, from both the English and the Native sides.
As for Roanoke itself, the real mystery is probably destined to remain unsolved.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Lorraine Swoboda