Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"An Inexorable Rage"
Pages 317-319
 
 
 
            An inexorable rage had propelled him.
     Hurrying across broken fields, thrusting his way through branches of pine, lurking behind boulders, tree trunks, and weathered barns, he had committed terrible acts. He had killed his first soldier near Meriam’s Corner east of the little bridge, having fired off three balls in two minutes. He had dropped another where Mill Brook passed beneath a second bridge. He had participated in five minutes of shooting between each of three evenly spaced houses near the by-road to Lincoln. The first of these buildings had been a tavern. Outside a second tavern he had fired at a looter devouring a hunk of bread.
     Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. It was not! It was his! His alone!
     God had killed his dearest friend!
     For twenty-five years James Hayworth had been Isaac Davis’s neighbor. James and his brothers and sisters had been raised some twenty rods down Farr’s To Meeting Road from the house of Ezekial Davis, Isaac’s father. James and his brothers, Samuel Jr. and Paul, had played with Isaac. They had labored together. They had taken their school lessons together, where James was now the school master. Every Sunday they had worshipped at the Meeting House. Weeks had passed during which he and Isaac had communicated daily.
     So worthy a leader, so beloved a mentor, so magnificent a friend, husband, and father!
     A week ago God had delivered to Isaac an enigmatic message. Perplexed, Isaac had permitted James -- who had come to the house to ask about Davis’s feverish daughter Mary -- to bear witness.
     “I want you to see something quite strange,” Isaac had said. “Come into the sitting room.”
     Isaac had gestured at his musket, positioned across two wall brackets. Perched on the musket barrel, its feathers ruffled, its dark eyes piercing, had been a barred owl.
     “How did it get in?!” had been James’s first question.
     “I have no idea.”
     “You’d think it would leave!”
     “It’s been here since yesterday. Hannah and I found it here when we came home from Jonas Hosmer’s.”
     Noticing that Isaac had placed rags on the floor to catch the bird’s droppings, James had said, “I’d drive it off.” He had wondered why Isaac hadn’t.
     “I’ve left the front door open. It refuses to leave.” For perhaps a half minute, showing the strangest of expressions, Isaac had stared at the owl. Its reciprocal scrutiny had been unrelenting. Turning to James, Isaac had said, “Ask your father about this.”
     “Ask him what, Isaac?”
     “Ask him if this owl’s visitation is an omen.”
     Later that afternoon James had related the incident. After frowning the Deacon had resumed his repair of the kitchen chair, James presuming that he would eventually comment. The following day the owl had flown out of Isaac’s house. That same day Isaac’s younger daughter, Hannah, had become ill.
     “Malignant sore throat,” Isaac had informed James that afternoon.
     That night James had beseeched God to be merciful. The All-Mighty Father had already taken to His house two of Isaac and Hannah’s children. The second child born to them, Baby Hannah, had died eight years ago after living one month. Two winters ago the infant Paul had survived but one week. Both of Isaac’s living daughters had contracted a disease that had killed at least three dozen children during James’s lifetime.
     If he could have foreseen what the owl’s visitation had
portended …
     But he hadn’t.
     Nor had Isaac.
     Eyes tearing, James seated himself in the shade of a tall maple, at the base of Fiske Hill. A corn shed belonging to a two-story, red-roofed house hid him from the back half of the redcoat column, which was laboring past. Feeling simultaneously God’s betrayal and Man’s innate cruelty, despising himself, he wept.
     Like the Biblical rider upon the pale horse he had administered horrific death!
     For what purpose?! Isaac was gone!
     The back of his head pressed fiercely against the maple’s rough bark, James heeded the cacophony of battle.
     We risk our lives to defeat tyranny! Why, Lord, do You punish us?!
     You have slain Isaac, to serve Your selfish purpose! You are cruel, Lord, heartless! Now take Your vengeance upon me!
     Minutes passed. His thinking shifted. A part of him asked, Who was he to pass judgment? His father had once said that a man was but a mote of dust amidst God’s great creation. He could no more fathom God’s design than he could the apostle John’s account of the opening of the seven seals. Was God speaking to him now? Answering him. Could he believe that God’s purpose had not been punitive or selfish? That His action had been -- so difficult for him to embrace -- necessary! Could he fire his musket again without believing he was being tricked?!
     Inspired by conviction, other men were fighting, whatever their inner turmoil. Should he not also, if not for pure justice then for something approximate? Maybe. But he would not. He had neither the strength nor the will. Nor the opportunity, the fighting having traveled to Lexington itself.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh, Earl Percy -- An Anomaly
 
It was Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh, Earl Percy who saved General Thomas Gage’s 700 men expeditionary force from capitulation or annihilation during its retreat from Concord, Massachusetts Colony, April 19, 1775.  It is a wonder that Percy thereafter played such a brief, insignificant role in Great Britain’s subsequent attempts to vanquish its rebellious colonies.  For that reason, perhaps, Percy has received scant attention in general history books.  His accomplishments and his character deserve our notice. 
 
When he disembarked with his regiment in Boston July 5, 1774, Percy, already a lieutenant-colonel, was a month short of being thirty-two years of age.  An aristocrat with close ties to King George III, he, like his father, the Earl of Northumberland, was a member of Parliament.  His history and that of his father prior to 1774, although complicated, need to be presented.
 
Born Hugh Smithson August 14, 1742, Percy was the son of Sir Hugh Smithson and Lady Elizabeth Seymour, heiress of the House of Percy.  The last Earl of Northumberland had died in 1670, leaving his daughter, Lady Elizabeth Percy, heiress to the title.  Upon her death in 1722, her son, Algernon Seymour, had been created Baron Percy in recognition of her inheritance.  Algernon died in 1750.  His title, Baron Percy, and much of his estate were bestowed on his daughter, Lady Elizabeth Seymour.  Lady Elizabeth had married ten years earlier Sir Hugh Smithson.  Sir Hugh wanted the heritage of his wife’s grandmother -- the Percy name and Northumberland title -- bestowed on him and, eventually, his son.  A special act of Parliament changed Sir Hugh’s family name from Smithson to Percy.  He became a knight of the Garter in 1757, the Order of the Garter the most senior of all British orders of knighthood, its membership limited to the monarch and 25 knights.  In October 1766 the government awarded him the title Earl Percy and the Duke of Northumberland.
 
When Hugh the father became the duke of Northumberland in 1766, Hugh the son was addressed as Earl Percy.  He would become the Earl of Northumberland upon his father’s death.
 
Percy was educated at Eton from 1753 to 1758.  He volunteered for military service in 1759 and purchased the rank of Captain of the 85th Regiment of Foot at the age of 17.  He participated in several battles in Europe during the Seven Years War.  He purchased the rank of lieutenant-colonel of the 11th Foot in April 1762.  In 1763 he was elected to represent Westminster in the House of Commons.  He married July 2, 1764, Lady Anne Crichton-Stuart, daughter of the influential Lord Bute, the King’s mentor.  He was immediately appointed the rank of colonel and the aide-de-camp to the King.  He was all of 22.  He was given the command of the 5th Regiment of Foot in 1768, the regiment he would lead April 19, 1775.
 
Percy was a physically unattractive man, very slight in physique with a large nose.  He had poor eyesight.  He suffered from chronic gout.  But he “was honorable and brave, candid and decent, impeccably mannered, and immensely generous with his wealth” (Fischer 259).  By 1768, both he and his father had distanced themselves from the King’s policy of governance of the American colonies.  Both men voted against the Stamp Act and voted for its repeal.
 
Despite his opposition to his government’s administrative colonial policies, Percy chose to accompany his regiment to America.  Being of high nobility and military rank, he had the option to decline.  The Earl of Effington had done so.  The Earl of Chatham had ordered his son to leave the army rather than go to America.  Because he had chosen the military as his career, Percy believed he was duty bound to serve wherever  he was sent.
 
Like Major John Pitcairn, he despised corporal punishment.  “At a time when other commanders were resorting to floggings and firing squads on Boston Common, he led his regiment by precept and example” (Fischer 259).  His regiment became devoted to him. 
 
Initially, Percy sympathized with the colonialists.  Although he socialized openly with individual Bostonians, he became contemptuous of them as a group.  General Gage bypassed him in selecting Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Smith and Major John Pitcairn to lead the 700 men expeditionary force to Concord.  The following scene from my novel “Crossing the River” portrays Percy’s qualities of character and state of mind prior to General Gage’s selection.
 
     A heavy mist lay upon Boston Common. Hugh, Earl Percy had been watching his soldiers perform their daily, except for Sunday, early morning close-order drills. Once the refuse of the streets of London and the ports of the Channel, rigorously disciplined, provided continuity, they had become good soldiers, many, he believed, good men.
     He was cognizant of the acute discontent rampant in other brigades, evidenced by the recent spate in attempted desertions. His own men were likewise weary of the banality of barracks life, of the repetition of incessant drill. They, too, had suffered the provocative insults of the town’s populace. Their generalized discontent notwithstanding, they had maintained their allegiance to him. Long ago, looking after their collective needs, he had won their fidelity.
     Months before they had come to Boston, Percy had given each man a new blanket and a golden guinea. Laying out 700 pounds, he had chartered a ship to transport to Boston their wives and children. Before coming to Boston and here as recently as three weeks ago, to inculcate fortitude Percy, a thin, bony man suffering from hereditary gout, had on long training exercises disdained the use of his horse.
     Percy’s officers revered him. He had honored their allegiance with frequent invitations to his table, at the mansion at the corner of Tremont and Winter Streets, formerly the residence of the royal governor, a fine wooden house surrounded by wide lawns.
     Without connivance, without deliberate forethought, he had fashioned a loyalty that other brigade commanders envied. An intelligent, attentive, generous aristocrat in His Majesty’s service, Hugh, Earl Percy was an anomaly.
     A member of Parliament, a young nobleman who one day would become the Duke of Northumberland, Percy, like his father, had opposed Parliament's tax measures that had led ultimately to the destruction of tea in Boston Harbor. Lord North's Tory government knew well Percy's liberal, Whig viewpoint; but they knew as well his soldierly allegiance to English law and king.
     He had arrived off Boston July 5 of the previous year, a month and three days after the closure of the Port. He had initially approved of General Gage's restrained enforcement of Parliament's punitive expectation that Boston recant its destructive act. The General’s policy had approximated Percy's accustomed mode of social interaction: respect people as human beings, mollify discontent, seek reasoned compromise, in specific instances help the indigent.
     The immediate assistance he had given the Boston family made homeless by a fire had been done without calculation. The compliments he had sent to a merchant's wife on the excellence of her landscape drawings had been sincere. He very much enjoyed the respectable people of Boston. He had entertained many of the town's gentlemen. Often, after the early morning drills had been completed, he had walked across the Common to the house of John Hancock to have breakfast with the acknowledged rebel leader, his Aunt Lydia, and, occasionally, Hancock's rumored fiancĂ©e, the spirited Dolly Quincy, who, if gossip was truth, “fancied” him.
     In matters great and small the nobleman was percipient.
     He had entertained the thought that the king's ministers had sent him to Boston to serve by example. If his presence reduced somewhat the hostility that much of the citizenry directed toward British officers, perhaps in time, with other officers emulating his conduct, reasonable Bostonians might modify their adversarial judgments. Like rainwater percolating to the roots of parched trees, their altered perception of British superintendence might, then, permeate the minds of the less rational.
            Thus, initially, his superiors may have hypothesized. If he had mollified to any extent the hostility of even a handful of righteous provincials, recent events had rendered moot that accomplishment.    
           
     During the past six months Percy had written letters criticizing the General’s high-mindedness. “The general’s great lenity and moderation serve only to make them more daring and insolent,” he had written his friend, Henry Reveley, in England, after 400 New Hampshire militiamen had seized royal powder and cannon from Portsmouth’s dilapidated fortress.
     Charitable as he had been to individual inhabitants, his opinion of them as a group, upon immediate exposure to them, had swiftly hardened. He had been appalled at the nastiness of the Boston mob. They and the people that incited them were bullies, cowards. “Like all other cowards, they are cruel and tyrannical,” he had informed Reveley. The Congregational clergy’s practice of denying Loyalists admittance to their churches was abhorrent. These rebels are “the most designing artful villains in the world,” he had written to his father. Selfish and strident in the pursuit of their objectives, they were incapable of disciplined, cooperative accomplishment. Town meetings were never-ending debates. Their town militias -- independent, jealous, wrangling entities -- talked much but accomplished little. The best he had to say about his nine months amongst the people of Boston was that his tenure had been instructive.
     The morning mist emblematic of attitudes contrary to his nature, he stared a good half minute at the drab river.
     Questions.      
     Which day this week would General Gage order the seizure of Concord’s stores?
     What measures would the General take to forestall armed resistance?
     What exigencies should the commander of the expedition strive to anticipate?
     Would he, Percy, be that commander (Titus 86-89)?
 
Work Cited:
 
Fischer, David Hackett.  Paul Revere’s Ride.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.  Print.
 
Titus. Harold.  Crossing the River.  BookLocker.com, Inc., 2011.  Print.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Teaching -- Getting Better
 
A person doesn’t break through the egg of college graduation a full-fledged, skillful teacher.  It doesn’t matter how bright and motivated the person is, he or she cannot achieve immediately what experienced teachers accomplish.  I was blessed to have been hired by an excellent school district after my first year of teachng.  I had mostly my lack of experience and a limited knowledge of my subject matter to overcome.  I became a competent teacher rather quickly.  What I learned during my first five or six years of teaching and my continued desire to improve as an instructor enabled me to become a good teacher.  The final ten years of my career I was better than good.
 
As I stated in my August 6 Teaching blog entry -- “The First Year” -- public school teachers are under fierce attack by corporate-funded “reform” activists bent on ridding communities of veteran teachers, privatizing public schools, making education a money-making enterprise for niche businesses, and indoctrinating children with a corporatized, agenda-driven, by-the-numbers culture.  Teach for America (TFA) -- a “reform” organization that seeks to place highly motivated, high-achieving college graduates in under-performing, largely minority populated city schools – serves those purposes.
 
Every year, TFA installs thousands of unprepared 22-year-olds, the majority of whom are from economically and culturally privileged backgrounds, into disadvantaged public schools. They are given a class of their own after only five to six weeks of training and a scant number of hours co-teaching summer school (in a different city, frequently in a different subject, and with students in a different age group than the one they end up teaching in the fall).  … they are lured by TFA's promises that they can help close the education gap for children in low-income communities.     An increasing amount of research shows that TFA recruits perform at best no better, and often worse, than their trained and certified counterparts. What’s more, they tend to leave after just a few years in the classroom” (Michna 1). 
 
“… more and more TFA recruits are now being placed in charter schools, where they are isolated from communities of experienced local teachers who can help train and ground them. “Veteran” teachers at charter schools administered by TFA alumni tend to have only three to four years of experience under their belts. The principals often have just a year’s or two years’ more experience than the teachers.    TFA exists to support the corporate education reform agenda, and that agenda is grounded not in creating better teachers but in the de-professionalization of teaching” (Michna 2).
 
My purpose, stated again, is to cut through the propaganda that poor teachers are the prime reason for low achievement test scores, that veteran teachers are set in their ways and, therefore, mediocre; and that, unlike traditionally hired new teachers today, bright, enthusiastic, TFA college graduates will overturn dramatically the debilitating damages of poverty.   I hope to do this by illustrating the natural process I (representative of most teachers) followed to become a definite asset to my students, their parents, my school, and the community.
 
Three days after I walked out of the junior/senior high school where I had taught my first year, I was on a train headed for Fort Ord – adjacent to Monterey, California -- where I would spend the entire two years of my military service and marry my wife Janet.  In the early spring of 1960 I sent interview requests to several San Francisco East Bay school districts, having decided to quit Southern California.  I received three invitations.  My wife would also be interviewing in the East Bay, finishing then her single year in Salinas, her third year overall of teaching.
 
My first interview was with the superintendent and assistant superintendent of the Orinda Union School District.  Orinda was not my first choice.  The district was opening a second intermediate school that fall and was looking to fill five classroom positions.  (Three of the positions would be filled by teachers from elementary schools in the district)  Each instructor was to teach a self-contained seventh grade class.  Each person would be required to teach English, social studies, science, and math.  The following year, after more classrooms had been built to accommodate both seventh and eighth grade students, instruction would become more compartmentalized.  English and social studies would be taught by the same teacher, not by separate teachers.  The same would be true of math and science.  Upon the advice of my wife, I took to the interview a list of questions.  The first words my interview said to me were, “Do you have any questions?”  I asked every question on my list.  I don’t believe they asked me one question.  I left the interview thinking, “Hmmm.  They’ve already made up their minds.  Scratch this district.”
 
My next interview was at an intermediate school in Antioch.  The interviewer was somebody for the administrative office.  His first question was, “What education books did you read while you were in the army?”  “None,” I responded.   What a stupid question, I thought.  Why would I want to do that?  Much better that I be reading literature (I had) to become better qualified to teach it.  I don’t remember what else he asked.  The interview was brief.  Scratch this district, I concluded.
 
My last interview was with the Mt. Diablo School District, their elementary, intermediate, and high schools in or adjacent to Concord.  The principal of one of the intermediate schools escorted me about his campus and asked questions, none of which I remember.  I left thinking that I had done reasonably well.  That evening my wife and I drove back to Monterey.  Several days passed.  I was nervous.  What if none of the districts offered me a contract?  That seemed a distinct possibility.  My choice of the three districts was Mt. Diablo.   Soon enough a letter arrived in the mail.  Orinda wanted me.  To this day I don’t know why.  I could not have been more fortunate.  It was a major turning point in my life.
 
So began my preparation to teach four subjects.  Three of them I thought I could handle.  Science was the fourth.  I had never had any interest in and, consequently, had little knowledge of the subject.  My wife’s advice was invaluable.  “You will need to group your students in reading and math.  Here’s how you do it.  This is how you do bulletin boards.  This is the way you discipline.  Here are some teaching techniques.”  I had my own teaching mentor living with me.  I got through that year, but it was tough.  Students smell an inexperienced teacher.  They will pounce.  Well into the school year I overheard my principal remark to somebody that I was tough but fair.  At the end of the year I received a satisfactory evaluation and was hired to teach at the school a second year.
 
I would be teaching English and social studies (essentially Western civilization) to two seventh grade classes.  Many of the students in one of the classes were very intelligent.  What a joy to experience that!  The other class was heterogeneously grouped.  Due primarily to my lack of experience, some of the students were a challenge.  I made a leap in competence that year.  I researched and taught the elements of fiction; I sought out excellent reading material; I mastered standard usage rules and the identification of the parts of speech.  I applied notions I had of how different kinds of composition could be taught.
 
I began this second year (the third of my career) searching for short stories that I could use to illustrate characterization, plot development, point of view, theme, and irony.  I had in my classroom several old anthologies to pick through as well as the current seventh grade state-approved anthology text book.  Pick through them I did, not content to follow the course of study that the editors of the anthologies had designed.  Developing my own curriculum was my purpose.  What my students would read and what we would discuss I would own. 
 
I remember one short story that I had my higher achieving class read: “Lost Soldier” by Stanford Whitmore.  An American Korean War soldier finds himself alone behind enemy lines.  It is winter.  He must get back to his lines.  He sees a Chinese soldier ahead of him, behind a boulder, studying a road beyond them both.  A group of two or three American soldiers, patrolling, walk carelessly down the road.  The Chinese soldier watches them intently.  The “lost soldier” is ready to shoot him.  The Chinese soldier watches the Americans pass.  Now the lost soldier must try to determine why the Chinese soldier hadn’t attempted to use his weapon.  The gunfire, he believes the Chinese soldier reasons, would alert other American soldiers nearby and increase the risk of his being shot.  After much hesitation, the lost soldier shoots the Chinese soldier, hurls the dead man’s weapon away, and leaves.  I used this story to illustrate theme.  I used it every year thereafter for twenty-nine years.  I wonder how many of the boys that were in my classroom in 1961 thought about that story seven years later -- whether they were in the military or not -- during the Vietnam War 1968 Tet Offensive.
 
I had some of my best students enter stories in a national short story writing contest.  One of them received an honorable mention.  I typed and used years later several of the stories as examples of good student short story writing.  My students also wrote short essays.  I remember having fun with them showing various ways to write an introductory paragraph.  “Always end your paragraph with your statement of the essay’s main idea.  Never state the idea in the beginning sentence.  If the main idea is “Cats are wonderful pets,” open with an arresting sentence, like “They may scratch the heck out of upholstered chairs” or an informational statement like “Some people prefer dogs to cats” or open with dialogue: “Do you know what your cat did this morning?” 
 
I made definite progress that year as a teacher, more so probably in what we read and discussed and what and how my students wrote than in teaching standard usage and parts of speech.  I had my moments of genuine satisfaction and moments when I questioned whether I wanted to continue in the profession.  Teaching is hard work.  Students are not always willing receptacles of learning.  On any given day they can choose to be quite the opposite.  I had to deal with personal problems, like students being picked on.  One girl, who was not one of my students, had brought a lot of peer disapproval and verbal abuse upon herself.  I learned that one very nice boy in my more talented class had said something insulting to her.  She had lashed out at him.  Talking to him privately, I advised him to apologize. 
 
“Why?” he said.  “You know what she’s like.  She won’t believe me.”
 
“She’ll probably say something bad back at you,” I said.
 
“She would.  Why should I apologize?”
 
“You hurt her.  Your apology is for you as much as it is for her.”
 
He understood and apologized.  She wasn’t able to trust him.  Still, he seemed satisfied.  The boy today is an important business office real estate executive in the Danville/San Ramon area of Contra Costa County.
 
My second year of teaching in Orinda came to an end.  The eighth grade class’s graduation ceremony was to take place on the football field of the nearby high school.  I decided to attend.  Students of my self-contained class of the previous year would be receiving their diplomas.  I had ended this second year in Orinda dubious about staying with teaching.  But I was married.  I would surely be having children.  What else was I trained to do?  I watched individual students I remembered well walk across the stage when their names were called.  I began to feel nostalgic.  My emotions surged.  Had anybody asked me a question, I would not have been able to speak.  These little buggers were out of my life.  That they had been in my life mattered.
Work Cited:
 
Michna, Catherine.  “Why I stopped Writing Recommendation Letters for Teach for America.”  Slate: 9 Oct. 2013. Web.  http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2013/10/teach_for_america_recommendations_i_stopped_writing_them_and_my_colleague.html


Monday, September 1, 2014

The "Lost Colony" -- Other Theories
 
We know that historian David Beers Quinn believed that sometime in September the vast majority of John White’s 1587 settlers moved from Roanoke Island to a location near the southern shore of Chesapeake Bay, perhaps near the Chesapeake village of Skicoac, situated on the Elizabeth River. According to Quinn, the colonists lived in harmony with the Chesapeakes until late April of 1607, when three English ships transporting colonists entered the Bay. Warned by his priests that his vast Powhatan nation would be destroyed if these people were to establish themselves, Wahunsonacocks, fearful that the settlers would unite with John White’s transplanted colony, had White’s people and their host tribe, the Chesapeakes, massacred. (See my revised blog entry: “John White’s Lost Colony,” August 30, 2014). Maybe a dozen of White’s settlers, escaping, were adopted or enslaved by interior Carolina tribes.

More recently published historians – three that I will discuss -- disagree about where White’s people settled. One of them believes that Wahunsonacocks’s warriors did not kill them.

In "A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke" James Horn postulates that the settlers established themselves on high ground between the mouths of the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers. He agrees with Quinn that the settlers probably opted to send a small group to Croatoan Island to await John White’s return with supplies and additional settlers to be able to direct him to the colony’s new location. “Possibly soon after White left [for England in 1587], several of the colonists’ leaders set out with Manteo and a couple of dozen men in the pinnace to make arrangements with the Chowanocs for establishing a temporary settlement … The Chowanocs had been allies of the English in the summer of 1586, and the settlers’ leaders hoped the Indians would see advantages in trading with the English or would view them as potential allies against hostile Iroquoian peoples to the south and west. The pinnace, probably capable of carrying forty passengers, would have had to have made at least two trips to the negotiated location, “a superb vantage point for keeping watch down the length of Albemarle Sound” (Horn 226).

“Once they had prepared the ground …, the settlers could begin the job of constructing their new living quarters using the timbers and materials brought from Roanoke Island. With the help of the Chowanocs, they could have had the settlement substantially completed by late December …“ (Horn 227).

Unlike Quinn, Horn believes that after it was apparent that White was not returning, some of the settlers migrated to other locations: closer to the Chowanoc capital; along Cashie Creek, a tributary of the Roanoke River; and near the falls of the Roanoke River. “The timing of the settlers’ movements is impossible to determine, but it is likely that most of them had joined Indian communities by the early to mid-1590s” (Horn 230). Horn believes that Wahunsonacocks, for the same reasons Quinn cited, ordered his warriors to “track down as many of White’s colonists as they could find and kill them” (Horn 232). Horn makes no mention of the Chesapeakes. Perhaps ten years after 1607 the Powhatan chief Opechancanough, a brother of Wahunsonacocks, ordered attacks against the Chowanocs and the Tuscaroras, killing many warriors and, presumably, a few more of White’s settlers. Horn’s theory that some of the colonists migrated from their settlement between the mouths of the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers before 1607 accounts for why a few white men and women were rumored to be living along Cashie Creek and near the falls of the Roanoke River during the early years of Jamestown’s existence.

In "The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand: Roanoke’s Forgotten Indians” Michael Leroy Oberg proceeds cautiously in attempting to account for the disappearance of John White’s people. He writes: “Their disappearance was meaningful. It was significant. That these colonists vanished demanded an explanation, and many have since been offered for the colonists’ fate” (Oberg 126). He examines eight theories.

He rejects Quinn’s supposition. “None of the English sources stated clearly that the colonists moved to the Chesapeake. … the Chesapeake Indians did not entirely disappear [after Wahunsonacocks’s 1607 attack]. … Governor John White had said that the colonists intended to move fifty miles into the interior after he left. If they moved west rather than north, and ascended Albemarle Sound rather than Chesapeake Bay, this relocation could have placed them in the territory of the Weapemeocs” (Oberg 137). Oberg discusses the possibility that the Weapeneoc chief Okisco might have sheltered the colonists but determines it unlikely. Although he had pledged loyalty to Queen Elizabeth and Walter Raleigh in 1586, Okisco was not supported by many members of his tribe, many of whom were hostile to the English. He had too many enemies to make plausible the idea that White’s settlers would choose him to provide them protection. “He was a leader with few followers, a deposed weroance who saw in the acceptance of English authority an opportunity, however desperate, to secure protection against the hostility of his own people” (Oberg 138).

Oberg concedes the merit of the theory that most of White’s settlers relocated at the mouth of the Chowan River. “The fifty miles that White estimated the colonists would move could have placed them along the fertile banks of the Chowan River, in the territory of Menatonon, a weroance who had never taken any hostile action against Raleigh’s colonists” (Oberg 142). The Choanoacs had their enemies, which included the Powhatans to the north and the Iroquoian Tuscaroras (identified by some historians as the Mandoag) to the west. “They occupied a critical point in the east-west flow of trade goods. Coastal peoples sent foodstuffs, beads, and European trade goods into the interior, which Choanoac middlemen exchanged with people farther to the west. Trade goods—beads, foodstuff, furs, and copper—moved along a line from the interior to the coast. The English needed protection from these coastal people. Certainly through Manteo they would have told Menatonon that provisions and trade goods were on the way, and that once their governor returned they could provide Menatonon with an ample quantity of presents. The colonists could strengthen the position of the Choanoacs in regional trade networks.” (Oberg 142-143). Over the years, the settlers would have been assimilated into the Choanoac tribe, becoming in the eyes of their host, full members of the community.

“We know that the Powhatan chiefdom and the Choanoacs had contended for control of the interior, particularly with regard to copper, a critical indication of status in Algonquian societies. At times they fought, and at times they traded. But once the English arrived at Jamestown Wahunsonacock [spelling differs from Horn’s] may have viewed the colonists settled in his territory and the white people at Chaonoac as levers Menatonon’s people could use to undermine his power. So in 1607 the Powhatans fell upon White’s colonists and their Choanoac hosts. Most of White’s colonists died, but a few survived …” (Oberg 142), finding shelter in different towns in the interior. “Yet it may not have happened like this at all,” Oberg concludes. What he seems reasonably certain of is that “Wahunsonacock attacked the colonists and their Algonquian hosts [whoever they might have been] … Some of them survived. … The descendants of these few colonists would have been socialized in native village communities in the Eastern Woodland. They became Algonquians and were no longer English men and women” (Oberg 146).

Lee Miller in her book "Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony" also agrees that most of John White’s settlers relocated in Choanoac territory. “It was an ideal region southwest of the Dismal Swamp along the Chowan River. Amazingly rich, well wooded, plentiful. … Survival was the issue. Relocation to the Chowan River, therefore, was the best decision that could have been made. … when John Smith questioned the Powhatan about the Lost Colonists, their advice was to search among the Chowanoc [a different spelling]. Indeed, they seemed so certain that this was where White’s company would be found that Michael Sicklemore” was sent by John Smith in late December 1608 to investigate. He found no colonists. “Instead, the picture the country presented was one of massive depopulation. The land was fertile, yet the people few, the country most overgrown with pines. Villages were gone, old fields reverted to stands of pines, one of the first trees to reestablish” (Miller 229-230).

What had happened? A massacre of the Chowanoc? Miller believes differently. “Disease. Contagion occurred everywhere in the Americas that Europeans made contact. [It decimated Algonquian villages along the shoreline of Pamlico Sound, Thomas Hariot noted, after he and his surveying crew and other Englishmen had made contact with them] … Disease had struck the Powhatan. … The illness may well have spread north from the Chowanoc country. [Roanoke Governor Ralph Lane and a company of soldiers had made aggressive contact with the Chowanoc in 1586] Menatonon traded with the Powhatan. … Suppose the explanation was as follows: the main body of White’s colonists separated and moved inland to the Chowan River. The Powhatan confirmed this, claiming that they had settled at Ohanoac … well within Chowanoc territory. And there it must have happened. A sudden and precipitious population decline would account very well for the situation Michael Sicklemore encountered. Few people, few villages, old fields overgrown with pines” (Miller 230).

The colonists, however, were mostly immune. What became of them? Noting that the Algonquian Secotan (Pamlico Sound villages mostly, including Roanoke), Chowanoc, and Weaponeoc had been allied defensively in 1584 against aggressive non-Algonquian tribes situated in the interior, Miller believes that contagion destroyed the prevailing balance of power in the region. The contagion that spread throughout the tribes of the alliance never reached the fearful enemies to the west, collectively referred to as the Mandoags. “… the question we must ask is this: Did the Chowanoc, the nation closest to the Mandoag frontier, come under attack?” Miller’s conclusion: “Reduced by disease, the Chowanoc had been attacked on the frontier. By a life-long enemy. By the Mandoag. If this indeed happened, the Chowanoc would have lost. White’s colonists would have suffered the same fate’ (Miller 233, 234).

Miller believes the Mandoag attack occurred soon after the colonists’ relocation, not some twenty years later. Events “must have moved rapidly after the colonists’ relocation, after the sudden shift in the balance of power.” It was the custom of Carolina and Virginia natives to spare women and children in battle. They would also spare men who surrendered in battle and men who were leaders or whose labor was valued. “… we might suppose that a rather large number of English men, women, and children were whisked away into the interior, possibly around thirty-five …’ (Miller 236). Evidence of their existence were crosses and letters newly carved in the barks of trees, left for Jamestown residents Nathaniel Powell and Anas Todkill, dispatched into Mandoag territory by John Smith, to discover.

Meanwhile, Jamestown was in desperate straits. “Jamestown has no food. Supply ships come, but they also bring more colonists. Too many planters are unwilling to fend for themselves, despite their own looming mortality. They reach crisis level, then sink even lower. The winter of 1609 is Jamestown’s starving time. … May 23, 1609. Sir Thomas Gates is dispatched to Jamestown with authority to impose martial law, if need be, to reestablish order.” He is instructed by the Virginia Company, the colony’s London group of investors, to wage war on the Powhatan. He is told: “You are to seize into your custody half their corn and harvest and their weroances and all other their known successors at once. Their children are to be taken and reeducated so that their people will easily obey you. Priests are to be imprisoned so that they no longer poison and infect them their minds with religion. … The Virginia Council are adept manipulators. Brainwash the children, remove the religious leaders. Control a people. … War is declared” (Miller 219, 220).

Reports of atrocities reached England. “Jamestown soldiers prodded [Paspahegh Chief] Wowinchopunk’s children into boats, rowed them into the bay, and disposed of them by throwing them overboard and shooting out their brains in the water. Governor De la Warr had their mother arrested as a prisoner of war, then ordered her stabbed. Reports multiply. A Nansemond village was incinerated, temples looted, the royal corpses dragged out onto the sand and robbed of their pearl and copper adornments. … England erupts in massive protest. Critics condemn the theft of Powhatan land, charging that Jamestown is no better than Spain, glossing robbery under cunning and coloured falsehoods” (Miller 220).

The Virginia Company insisted that it had the legal right to take away Powhatan land, citing the precedence of the colony of Roanoke. Protesters were adamant. “It is clear that the only way to get the country behind the war is to turn the Powhatan into villains” (Miller 220). William Strachey, secretary of the Jamestown colony, did so, declaring that Wahunsonacock had murdered White’s settlers. What then of John Smith’s statement written years later, that Wahunsonacock had told him in December 2008 that he had ordered the settlers murdered? “The truth is that Smith never said that Wahunsonacock murdered the colonists. Samuel Purchas [a London compiler of travel narratives, a cleric who believed that the Powhatan were devil-worshippers] said so. “Powhatan confessed that he had been at the murder of that colony, Purchas wrote, and showed to Captain Smith a musket barrel and a brass mortar and certain pieces of iron which had been theirs. Hardly proof – the items could have come in trade from anywhere. … The explanation that the Powhatan murdered the Lost Colonists is too neat and tidy. Were it believed, then Jamestown could justify wiping out the Powhatan. The implications are profound: from the moment war is declared, no further searches are made. Stachey’s story and thirty years of ensuing hostility destroy any information we might have recovered” (Miller 224). The story holds for four centuries, Miller contends. Historians David Beers Quinn, James Horn, and Michael Leroy Oberg have perpetuated it.

Who were the Mandoag? Lee Miller asks. They were not a distinct tribe. The word is a term that means “stealthy” and “treacherous,” that means “enemy,” that means “snakes.” The Mandoag “region is large, the nations many” (Miller 241). They were not the Iroquoian Tuscarora, as some historians maintain. The nation that Miller identifies as the prime culprit is the Siouan-speaking Eno, who controlled access to the copper-producing region in the Carolina Piedmont. Very fierce and powerful, the Eno were mercenaries hired by the small but very wealthy Occaneechi nation to assist in protecting Occaneechi Island, a vital trading center and distribution terminus for products moving up an established trading path from the south. The Eno monitored entry onto the trading path and northern access to distant copper mines approximately 250 miles into the interior. Miller believes that the Eno took the English survivors to the Occaneechi trade mart, where they were separated and disseminated throughout the Piedmont among the Occaneechi trading partners and among Eno towns.

“Deep in the woods, far in the interior of a country called Mandoag, where the tall trees close in the darkness, melted copper runs in rivulets. … Cut off from any communication, dispersed one from the other, four men, two boys, and a young girl work the copper. Men have come looking for them. Englishmen, stumbling through the interior, from faraway Jamestown. Steam rising up from the fires of the melting copper reflects a sudden spark of hope in eyes dulled from drudgery – if only they can speak to the search party, if only they can cry out. ‘We are here! We are here!’ But the Mandoag won’t allow it. Through stinging tears, a man carves a cross on a tree, and another. And another. A forest etched with crosses.

“Power and politics are in Jamestown. No one understands the message. The search for White’s colonists is called off and a story fabricated. All hope is gone” (Miller 262).

Finally, an article, “Map’s Hidden Marks Illuminate and Deepen Mystery of Lost Colony,” printed May 3, 2012, in the New York Times deserves our attention. Here are pertinent excerpts.

The British Museum’s re-examination of a 16th-century coastal map using 21st-century imaging techniques has revealed hidden markings that show an inland fort where the colonists could have resettled after abandoning the coast.



The analysis suggests that the symbol marking the fort was deliberately hidden, perhaps to shield it from espionage in the spy-riddled English court.



The discovery came from a watercolor map in the British Museum’s permanent collection that was drawn by the colony’s governor, John White.



In the past there had been hints as to where the settlers might have gone — White himself made an oblique reference to a destination 50 miles inland — but no solid evidence had surfaced.

Even White’s map, which was included in a 2007 British Museum exhibition, appeared to hold no clues. But two small patches layered atop the map intrigued Brent Lane, a member of the board of the First Colony Foundation who was helping research the site of an American Indian village.

Mapmakers in the era often used the patches, overlaying new paper atop old to correct mistakes and repair damage. Mr. Lane speculated that one of the patches could mask an Indian village.

The British Museum agreed to investigate, and it used infrared light, X-ray spectroscopy and other imaging techniques to look beneath the patches. The larger patch, which was the focus of Mr. Lane’s curiosity, indeed appeared to show a correction to coastal topography.

What lay under the second one stunned Mr. Lane. The patch hid a four-pointed star outlined in blue and filled in red, according to the British Museum’s report. The patch also covered a smaller, enigmatic marking, possibly a second settlement.

To historians, the star where two rivers emptied into Albemarle Sound probably represented a fort or the intended location of one, and its discovery greatly increases the likelihood that the colonists retreated to the spot.

Quoted by The Virginia Gazette, historian James Horn commented: “I couldn’t have scripted it better. I was stunned when I heard the news. That’s exactly where I wrote they had gone.” Archeological excavation could probably prove whether an English settlement had ever existed at that location. Because a privately owned 18-hole golf course presently covers the land, this has not been done.

Works cited:

Emery, Theo. “Map’s Hidden Marks Illuminate and Deepen Mystery of Lost Colony.” New York Times 3 May 2012: A18. The New York Times. Web. 4 May 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/us/...;

Horn, James. Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Print.

Miller, Lee. Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001. Print.

Oberg, Michael Leroy. The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand: Roanoke’s Forgotten Indians. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Print. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

I have had to repost this blog entry.  The August 1 entry disappeared while I attempted to make a correction in its content.  The revised entry is below.

John White's "Lost Colony"
 

William Sanderson’s Moonlight and John Watts’s Hopewell arrived three leagues off Hatorask Island August 15, 1590. Watts’s five ships had wasted considerable time in the Caribbean harassing local shipping while they had waited for the great Santo Domingo treasure fleet’s appearance. Occasionally, one or two galleons of a great fleet lagged. These were the prize ships that privateers like the Hopewell’s Captain Cocke and other ship captains craved. As they had waited, July had passed into August. John White’s anxiety had reached its apex. Assuming that the Hopewell did sail to Roanoke, it would need to leave the Outer Banks no later than the end of August to avoid a winter crossing of the Atlantic.

It was August 18, the third birthday of White’s Roanoke-born granddaughter Virginia Dare, when White, Captain Cocke, and a contingent of sailors set foot on Roanoke Island. Climbing a sandy bank, they sighted on a tree branch the Roman letters CRO, signifying, White interpreted, the word “Croatoan,” the name of Manteo’s village of birth, some 50 miles distant on the southern part of Hatarask Island. White explained to the mystified sailors that prior to his 1587 leaving-taking, the settlers “had considered relocating.” Fear of further reprisal by local Algonquians for wrongs done to them and of sudden discovery by Spanish ships were weighing on them. “… they were prepared to remove from Roanoke 50 miles into the main.” And if he were unable to find them upon his return, “they devised a plan, a secret token agreed upon” that they would “write or carve on the trees or posts of the doors the name of the place where they should be seated. … I willed them, that if they should happen to be distressed in any of those places, that they should carve over the letters or names, a cross” (Miller 13).

Entering the village compound, they saw not a door, house, shed, board, or even a nail where the 1587 structures had existed. Standing before them instead, in the center of the compound, was “a high wooden palisade, artificially constructed of trees with curtains and flankers very fort-like. … On one of the chief trees or posts at the right side of the entrance to the palisade, where the bark is scraped away … was engraven CROATOAN … without any cross or sign of distress” (Miller 14). We can imagine White’s exhilaration, his anticipation of seeing his daughter and granddaughter and, God be willing, all of his friends and associates a day’s travel by ship thereafter.

Out at sea a great storm was building. With some difficulty the sailors rowed their scallops back to the Hopewell and Moonlight, anchored off Port Ferdinando. “Night passes fitfully, the ships plunging in the mounting swells. The next morning, despite the weather, Captain Cocke agrees to set a course for the island of Croatoan … The anchor spins away, taking a second down with it. Untethered, the ship drives fast into the shore. Toward the shoals. … By accident, sheer luck, they fall into a channel or deep water and avoid being dashed to pieces on the bar. … Only one anchor remains of an original four, and the weather grew to be fouler and fouler; our victuals scarce and our cask and fresh water lost” (Miller 16).

The idea of wintering in the Caribbean was considered. Decisions were made. The Moonlight would return directly to England, its crew declaring it to be “weak and leaky.” The Hopewell would remain in the West Indies! Hope yet! White could join his settlers in the spring! But then, “August 28 it happens. The wind shifts. … The storm blasts up off the Carolina coast from out of nowhere. … A wild storm, full of malice and greed. Howling winds buffet the ship, coiling the sails around the masts. … Wrenching the Hopewell away from its destination [Trinidad]. … The Hopewell is forced east in a direct line with the Azores. Away from the eye of the storm” (Miller 17-18).

“At Flores in the Azores the Moonlight is spotted riding with four English men-of-war. A surprise. The leaky hull only an excuse to rejoin the fray, dodging inactive duty at Roanoke. … And all the while, the enemy sea and her ally the wind continue to play havoc with his [Cocke’s] plans, preventing a landing for provisions … The Hopewell finally surrenders and sets a course for England.” The ship reaches Plymouth October 14. “The voyage is over. White’s last chance to contact the planters had come and gone” (Miller 18).

Sir Walter Raleigh could no longer help him. The continuous attacks directed at Raleigh by the young Earl of Essex and his friends had reduced considerably the Queen’s regard for him. And then, Raleigh utterly destroyed that which was left. In the summer of 1591 he seduced secretly Elizabeth (Beth) Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth’s maids of honor. In July they conceived a child. In the autumn they were secretly married. Beth left the Court in February 1592, gave birth to a son in March, and returned to Court in April. Rumors circulated. In July, “Queen Elizabeth, in a rage, hurls the lovers in the Tower. Raleigh’s disgraces leave him fair game for his enemies” (Miller 203). The radical English Jesuit Robert Parsons led Raleigh’s debasers. He had already, in February, charged Raleigh with atheism. A rash of vicious publications followed. Raleigh “is accused of the loss of life of voyagers and mariners, and of damaging England while enriching himself through militarism and ambition.” He is “an epicurean. A free-thinker. Separatist sympathizer. A loose cannon” (Miller 203).

Raleigh was released from the Tower in August (Beth in December) but was barred from the Court. “Nor did her {Elizabeth’s] displeasure abate, for he was obliged to live quietly … for the next five years at Sherborne Castle” (Weir 413) in Devon and on his estates in Ireland.

In February 1593 Richard Hakluyt received a letter from John White, who was residing on one of Raleigh’s Irish estates. Nearly two and a half years had passed since his tragic return from Roanoke. The letter detailed the events of his 1590 experience. “He commits his colonists to the merciful help of the Almighty. … White was never heard from again” (Miller 204).

Nor would John White’s settlers make contact with any European, as far as historians know. Working with only scraps of information, historians do speculate where John White’s “lost colony” may have relocated and what may have happened to them. Here is one historian’s theory.

David Beers Quinn, the author of Set Fair for Roanoke, believed that a small segment of the settlers went to Croatoan to await John White’s expected return, while the vast majority, perhaps 88 individuals, sailed to the south shore of Chesapeake Bay, the intended location of White’s voyage to Roanoke in 1587. Governor Ralph Lane had sent a detachment of soldiers to that area to live among the Chesapeake natives during the 1585-1586 winter. The success of that expedition was a major reason why Sir Walter Raleigh chose not to resurrect the Roanoke Island colony. Quinn stated: “it was not until Jamestown had been established for a year and a half that clear evidence emerged that the main body of the colonists had indeed joined the Chesapeake Indians as early as 1587 and had lived and perished with them” (345). Quinn estimated that the pinnace in their possession probably made three trips to the Bay and the 15 miles up the Elizabeth River to Skicoac, their chosen location.

“The moving of the colonists northward in September 1587 would make sense, as they would wish to be established before winter. … There would need to have been messengers sent, probably overland, to warn them [the Chesapeake Indians at Skicoac] of the approach of the colony, and one or two men must have spoken enough of their language to be able to communicate effectively with them, with, perhaps, the guidance of one of Manteo’s Indians. … The first winter and the first growing season would be crucial. It may be that a permanent village site was carved out in 1588 at some distance from the main Chesapeake town to allow the settlers to develop their own community life. … The settlers would have been buoyed up with hope that sometime in 1588 White [told of their location by colonists at Croatoan] would appear with wives and children and single men and women to add to their strength and increase the size of the colony” (347, 349). Because White never appeared, intermarriage and assimilation with the natives had to have taken place over the succeeding years.

The Chesapeakes had successfully resisted the growing power of the Powhatan and their ambitious chief Wahunsonacocks. Quinn wrote: “For several decades before 1600 he had been building up his authority in the Virginia Tidewater, subjecting by diplomacy or war, or both, tribe after tribe along the James and York rivers and on the Virginia Eastern Shore. Not all the tribes on the south bank of the James or the southern shore of Chesapeake Bay were prepared to acknowledge his authority … Among the tribes that evidently did not pay him tribute were the Chesapeakes. Moreover (if our assumptions are correct), they were harboring and making marriage alliances with a group of white refugees who had appeared many years before but had, apparently, not played any part in the politics or warfare of the area and so had not been molested. But the entry of a Spanish ship in 1588 into the Chesapeake Bay [see my blog entry: “1588-1590: Drake’s Failure, Raleigh’s Decline, White’s Dilemma” -- July 1, 2014] must have given Powhatan some grounds for alarm” (360). (Quinn uses the name of the large Algonquian nation -- Powhatan -- as the name of its chief) In 1603 an English ship commanded by Samuel Mace, making landfall, seized several natives presumably of Powhatan’s confederation. The natives were taken to London to be interrogated (as Manteo and Wanchese had been questioned in 1584) to obtain useful knowledge of the Chesapeake territory and its inhabitants. Powhatan’s priests prophesized that white men would come again to deprive Powhatan of his kingdom. After three ship commanded by Captain Christopher Newport entered Chesapeake Bay in April 2007, Powhatan took action. According to John Smith, Jamestown resident and explorer, and William Strachey, secretary of the Jamestown colony in 1609, Powhatan slaughtered the Chesapeakes and their assimilated white allies. Smith claimed years later that Powhatan himself had confessed this to him December 2008 at the two men’s last meeting. Strachey wrote of instructions given by King James I that Powhatan’s priests be executed and Powhatan’s confederacy be broken apart both as punishment for the slaughter and to establish dominion over Powhatan. This was never done, due to the weakness of the settlement. Jamestown officials, and Smith, did hear rumors of white survivors living in various locations in the North Carolina interior. Two half-hearted attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.

Quinn wrote that “no concerted attempt was made to recover them.” A military operation would probably have been too risky given the weakened state of the Jamestown settlement. Quinn believed that emissaries could have been sent to bribe chieftains. This also was not done. By 1611 “it may have seemed mere sentimentality to expend any great effort to recover a handful of individuals. Under the Spartan regime of Sir Thomas Dale, from 1611 to 1616, this seems plausible. But we are left entirely in the dark. The survivors were deserted completely, so far as we know, for twelve or thirteen years … All this time we hear nothing of attempts to search the Outer Banks for colonists who had remained with Manteo. They are never even mentioned and pass into oblivion for the rest of the seventeenth century. We are forced to accept as a fact that they became Indians themselves, and their children and grandchildren wholly so, as the century went on” (375-376).

Next month I will present the theories of Michael Leroy Oberg, Lee Miller, and James Horn.

Works Cited:

Miller, Lee. Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2001. Print.

Quinn, David Beers. Set Fair for Roanoke. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985. Print.

Weir, Alison. Elizabeth the Queen. London: Vintage Books, 1998. Print. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review
"A Circle of Earth"
by Patricia Weil
 
I have to go back years to think of a debut novel I have enjoyed as much as Patricia Weil’s “A Circle of Earth.”

First of all, this novel is excellent because Mrs. Weil knows people. Her characters are fully dimensional, authentic, neither entirely exemplary nor contemptible. We identify easily with them; and as with real people we invest our emotions and cast judgment.

Two married couples dominate the novel. Henry Gray marries Lillian McClinton, a dainty young woman a step or two above him in class. An empathetic person with an inquiring mind, restless by nature, Henry is forced by his father to do supervisory work at a cotton mill. Later, to support Lillian and his young family in the manner he feels they deserve, he buys a quarter ownership in a saw mill, in both instances stunting his potential intellectual growth. As his economic difficulties mount, he takes to drinking. We discover that he is an alcoholic. Emma Swann, a trusting innocent raised with compatible sisters by loving parents, protected, as if in a cocoon, from the harsh realities of Alabama life before 1914, is persuaded by Ralston Griffen, an unfeeling, self-absorbed, controlling young man, to become a rural farm wife and mother. Henry and Emma must deal with their deteriorating marriages, the economic hardships of the Great Depression, and the consequences of their own human failings. Indeed, the stories of Henry, Emma, and their spouses illustrate adroitly the universal truth that a person’s life is shaped always by time, place, parentage, the actions of other people, chance, and that person’s strengths and weaknesses of character.

In the novel’s first two chapters the author captures easily our interest by having Henry and Emma look back upon their lives from the vantage point of decades of experience. We are given glimpses of moments of crises that cause us to want to know everything about their experiences. For seemingly the first half of the novel Henry and Emma are featured in alternate chapters. The momentum of their stories accelerates. Emma’s basic conflict is resolved before Henry’s. The last several chapters are a satisfying denouement.

I was especially impressed with Mrs. Weil’s knowledge of her subject matter. Here are two prime examples.

Ralston Griffen has taken his innocent, young bride to the farm he has purchased. The previous owner has let the land go unattended. Ralston and Emma must harvest the corn and cotton crops, entangled by coarse, wild vegetation. “It was angry work, this work of ripping up and pushing apart that Black Belt soil, which was weighed with clay, netted with roots that drove deep, like knots of twine. He had worn out and replaced a plow point well before half of the rows were finished. Then had to go back over each foot of the fields with a harrow—between the furrows, the high grass had only been flattened, not pulled up. He began over the corn, matted with thick plants. Like the sour Jimsonweed that grew up to his shoulders. The rows were crisscrossed with thin, tickly grasses, in places scattered with morning glory.”

After Ralston abandons Emma and their children, Emma’s demeanor changes. “The children missed their leisure, the long Saturdays of baseball, train watching, the lengthy hikes to the places that were good to fish or swim. But more than these things they missed their mother. Nettie, especially. In the past, among themselves, they had joked about Emma’s carrying-on, all the little nonsense things—and the teasing. They didn’t understand that they relied on those things. There was no joy now in Emma. And, for the children, everyday life had thinned down into something gray and flavorless. When Emma tried to force the old humor, it was worse, somehow. The children felt the strain.”

To tell a story that spans at least 60 years, an author must narrate by “telling” much more than by “showing.” A skilled writer like Mrs. Weil does this clearly and intelligently. Here is an example.

From childhood Henry’s older brother Drefus had been his mentor and protector. Early on, the author writes: “There’d be hearty hugs and back clapping. And the two men would settle in the living room or on the porch, where they’d talk and smoke, sometimes far into the night. One or the other would produce a bottle. … Then Drefus would elaborate in great earnest on the subject of where he had been. They laughed out loud in the talk. Both were long-bodied men; both tended to draw up a leg as they warmed to a subject. Drefus was in love with flight—of Birmingham, Memphis, Mobile, New Orleans. Of train stations late at night, the goings and coming of strange, city people. His stories were the wonder and Henry the audience—it had always been that way. But the self-importance of each man was most warmed and gratified in the company of the other.”

“A Circle of Earth” is more a story of thoughts and emotions than action and dialogue. Mrs. Weil’s subjective narration is never dull; it is insightful and emotive. The scene that portrays Ralston’s return to Emma and the children, in which very little is said, is outstanding. Here is a brief excerpt.

“He had come back, it was true, to seek her out. And although Ralston had gone over the prospect of this hoped-for reunion again and again in his mind, it hadn’t occurred to him to prepare what to say. Nor had it occurred to him that there would be any special awkwardness—that when the moment came, he might not know what to do. …

“Come back. He had come back. Still, there was nothing to say. Emma didn’t move in her chair. But her feelings, now jarred loose, careened in opposing directions. The children. Safe. They would be safe again. They would no longer be hungry. But he had deserted them, left them to get by any old way that they could. His own blood—wife and family. There was also anger in the wild rush of feelings. And the shame of it. Bruising. She would never get over it. Emma’s emotions were crazy, in their sudden release. For so long it had been there: the dread that tugged at her mind like a tiny, malicious bite. Fear of the hunger. The cold. The mortgage money. The crops. All of it. But it was over, now. He had come back. For a few moments the welter of relief and long overdue anger jammed inside Emma. Then she was overcome by it all.”

There are many scenes in this novel, mostly serious and some light-hearted, that captivated me. These included the scene of Ralston’s return, the scene of Ralston’s courtship of Emma, Henry’s sessions with his psychiatrist, the scene in which Henry begs for food during a brief stop of “riding the rails” with Drefus, the brief, tender scenes that reveal Emma and Lillian’s growing friendship, and a scene in which Lillian converses politely with two senior high school boys that, on a lark, had come to her dilapidated house to check out Lillian’s attractive, easily humiliated, freshman daughter Elizabeth.

Finally, I compliment Mrs. Weil for her excellent use of sensory detail. Her characters always have presence. She employs imagery effectively in brief scenes like this one.

“At not quite 6:30 on a Sunday morning, the sound of the telephone woke Henry. The ringing was strange to his ears, and he lay for some time resisting it, sleep-soaked and perspiring. Night had brought no relief from the early heat spell that had lasted for more than a week. He and Lillian had tangled themselves in the bed sheets, which felt damp to the touch.”

And she employs imagery beautifully in lengthier passages.

“And how good it was to be out! … Henry stalked the old alleys as a schoolboy would do, senses alert for small discoveries. He passed carriage houses converted to garages, some with fraying buggies, discarded toy wagons or hobby horses that had once belonged to children as old, now, or older than he. He caught all the cooking smells from breakfasts and dinners, the sweetish stink of garbage, the sunny odors of soapsuds and warm grass, newly watered. He listened to the carryings-on of cooks and delivery men, the shrieks of children unsupervised behind houses. He occasionally overheard quarrels from anonymous upstairs windows. These were the smells and sounds of days going by, simple days in the everyday lives of people.”

“A Circle of Earth” is an outstanding novel.