Monday, April 21, 2014

Book Review
"Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony"
by Lee Miller
Of the four major secondary sources that I have read that narrate Walter Raleigh’s attempts to establish an English settlement on the coast of North America in the 1580s, Lee Miller’s Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony is probably the most informative and definitely the most entertaining. 
Miller’s research is extensive.  (Even her footnotes give useful information)  Not content just to tell the conventional story of Raleigh’s attempts, she provides valuable context.
We learn about the misery of life in England and, more particularly, London.  Miller writes that fish markets and butchers shops at London’s waterfront abound.  The stench is overwhelming.  Offal is channeled down to waiting dung boats on the Thames.  Streets are twisted and narrow, with constant congestion of carts and coaches.  Around the base of St. Paul’s Cathedral booksellers’ stalls and printers’ shops swarm.  Skulking around them are knaves, pickpockets, and thieves.  Rudeness “is in keeping with an overall atmosphere of self-indulgence.  A shirking of personal responsibility.    Anger is allowed free rein; street brawls are common.  Couples easily separate when tired of marriage.    the swelling army of pursy and corpulent citizens indicates an absence of self-denial” (Miller 35).  Bear-baiting is a favorite public entertainment.  Crowds of idlers sit in stands to watch specially trained dogs, one by one, attack a bear who is tethered to a post and whose teeth have been broken short.
Additionally, Miller explains the history of Queen Elizabeth’s difficulties with Spain beginning with King Phillip II’s ascension to the throne in 1556.  She writes about the intrigues against Elizabeth’s life that involve Mary Stuart, the one-time queen of Scotland.  We read about Mary’s duplicity, arrest, trial, and execution. 
Miller provides a character sketch of Walter Raleigh, relates his beginnings and his rise to power, portrays his enemies, and narrates his downfall.
She offers reasons to explain why ordinary men and several of their wives and children leave England in 1587 to settle in the New World.
Miller’s book is excellent for its range of historical information.  That she attempts to answer two lingering questions about the Roanoke settlements makes her book even better.  Why was Walter Raleigh’s 1587 attempt – led by the artist John White -- to establish a permanent settlement doomed to fail?  What really happened to the “lost” settlers that White could not locate upon his return to Roanoke in 1590? 
Lee Miller is the only historian to theorize that the 1587 attempt was deliberately sabotaged.  She reviews each of Queen Elizabeth’s four primary councilors and presents compelling evidence that the saboteur was her secretary of state Francis Walsingham. 
The conventional wisdom of most historians about the “disappearance” of a major portion of White’s settlers is two-fold.  One, they relocated either on the south shore of Chesapeake Bay or 50 miles inland from Roanoke Island somewhere up the Chowan River and, two, they were slaughtered years later by the Powhatan Indian nation.  Miller speculates that they settled somewhere along the Chowan River but were almost immediately destroyed by a vicious interior tribe that coastal Algonquian tribes called Mandoag.  She lays out arguments as to why Jamestown officials declared that John White’s “lost colony” had been killed by the Powhatans and why the few rumored survivors of White’s colony were spread across North Carolina’s interior.
A third reason why I valued this book is Miller’s skillful use of descriptive language.  In certain places she writes like a novelist.  Here are two examples.
John White and Thomas Hariot approach Paquype Lake – “They follow a wooded trail, damp and spongy underfoot, around knotty cypress knees jutting out of stagnant water the color of weak tea, tainted with tannic acid.  Scarlet-headed parakeets tumble wildly into the air, frightened…  The path skirts trees the girth of five men, primordial giants draped in skeins of green vine.  Tendrils curl, cascading downward, twisting over the ground below.  Then, without warning, incongruous amid the tangle, a ring of blue water” (Miller 89).
Evening scene at Aquascogoc – “Offshore, Indian dugouts ride a crimson tide as the sun tumbles into the sound.  Shimmering fire across the water.  Fishermen, in grand silhouette, lay their nets, rhythmically casting and hauling in.   Butterflies unfolding glistening wings of nettle fiber.  A graceful dance.  Eventually the boats, lit up by torches, will twinkle toward land.  Drawn by the fires of Aquascogoc.  The domed houses gleam with muted light, illuminating woven wall patterns like stained glass, spilling warm shapes across the tamped ground outside.  Each design different.  Stars and geometrics; kaleidoscopic forms, birds and fish” (Miller 90).
Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony is a special book.