“The real stories of John Smith and Pocahontas have seldom been fully told, much as they are a part of the popular imagination.”
by Joseph Bruchac
I discovered this novel while researching Mataoka and the origins of the colony of Virginia. Informative and entertaining as historical accounts are, they do not always play with the emotions. Sometimes it is only by turning to the imaginative recreations of fiction writers that one can begin to feel what it might have been like to live in another age, or in another culture, or -in this case – to land on an unknown shore and attempt to build a new home.
Having both European and American Indian ancestry, Joseph Bruchac is in a unique position to see the colonisation of Virginia from two separate points of view. As he puts it in his notes on sources, “I needed to see the same events from a European perspective at one moment and from an Indian one at the next.”
The novel is set during the first months of the Jamestown settlement, from the arrival of the British in Chesapeake Bay in April 1607 in their swan canoes, until December of that year and the adoption of Captain John Smith into the Powhatan tribes. Although catalogued as juvenile fiction, I found it very readable and adult enough in its style and language.
Bruchac gives the voice in alternate chapters to Mataoka/Pocahontas herself and to Smith. The narrative style of the former is well suited to the age and character of the somewhat wayward child Mataoka is supposed to be. The Smith chapters are based on Smith’s own account of events, even to the extent of adopting a modernised version of seventeenth century English. Every chapter is prefaced by either an extract from native American lore or from an English text of the period. Though sometimes cumbersome to the twenty-first century ear, this method gives the novel a real flavour of the age.
Pocahontas’ father, after bad experiences with the Spanish, is suspicious of the new arrivals and forbids his daughter to visit them. However, she is good at asking questions and wheedling information from her uncle and brothers. She concludes soon that “they do not intend to grow crops … there seem to be no women among them… Only tobacco knows the touch of a man’s hands.” Eventually, she is allowed to see for herself the Coatmen, overdressed and sweating (- and smelling -) as they work their fields. “It made me want to laugh,” she said, “but I kept quiet.” Only the red-haired and -bearded Cabden Jonsammit, Little Red-haired Warrior impresses her as a real man.
Smith, the outsider and out of favour with the aristocratic leaders of the expedition, arrives in America as a prisoner, accused of treason. But through his own efforts he rises to be the only man capable by knowledge and experience of leading the colony. With remarkable attention to detail, he gives us the names and status of more than half of the 105 men aboard the three ships. He has few friends among them but reserves his contempt and scorn in the main for Edward Wingfield, the self-styled President. Attempts to plant crops are a disaster and the settlers have to rely on trading with the natives for food. However, Mataoka’s people too have a bad first harvest, thus many of the colonists starve. Others succumb to fever. “About this time divers of our men fell sick; we missed above forty before September did see us,” Smith writes.
Joseph Bruchac is a superb storyteller. Published in 2003, his Pocahontas is a pleasure to read. It is filled with both humour and sadness, and with a very human cast of characters, most of them people who really lived.