Monday, June 1, 2015

Favorite Daughter, Part One
by Paula Margulies
I was not entirely satisfied with Paula Margulies’s Favorite Daughter, Part One.  Certain aspects of the novel informed and entertained me.  Other aspects disappointed.
I commend the author for her selection of subject matter.  Historians know very little about Algonquian tribes that lived near the Atlantic coastal waters in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries.  Their knowledge is limited to what English explorers and colonial leaders chose to report.  The story about Pocahontas and John Smith that most people are familiar with – for instance, Pocahontas throwing her body over Smith to prevent his execution -- is Smith’s version of what happened.  Historians question Smith’s veracity.  The author has written a somewhat different account.
I compliment her additionally for detail she provides about Virginia Algonquian life. 
I was interested in the food the Algonquian Americans ate and how it was prepared.  The way the women carried water (in large, hollowed out gourds and in deer bladders) and how at least the elite villagers dried their hands (on downy bird feathers) intrigued me.  The author’s detail about ceremonial dances was informative.  For example, a successful group hunt was replicated afterward in the village by its women, representing the hunters, surrounding the men, dressed to represent the hunted.  Closing upon the increasingly clustered “animals,” the “hunters” sang songs that urged the prey to surrender.
How the Algonquians identified objects entirely foreign to them and how they identified the passage of time was also intriguing.  The Atlantic Ocean was called “the Great Waters.”  An English sailing ship was a “swan canoe.”  A musket was a “fire-stick.”  A year’s passing was called a change of leaves.  A month was a new full moon.
I appreciated the author’s portrayal of Powhatan.  He is not the stereotypical fierce warrior, intimidator, and intractable enemy of the Jamestown settlement as he is often depicted.  Fairly early in the novel the author has Powhatan say this to Pocahontas.
“In my sixty years, I’ve seen our people flee, to lie in the cold woods, feeding upon nothing but acorns and roots, with no rest, little food, and poor sleep,” he says.  “We’ve prevailed, but we’ve lost many, and still the outsiders return.  If our people are to survive, we must learn to live with the intruders.  It’s only through friendship and trust that we bring safety to the people.”
Finally, the author’s narration of events leading to John Smith’s capture and his averted execution did engage me.  Part of the appeal was the natives’ lack of knowledge about the Tassantassuk (the outsiders, i.e. the English).  How Powhatan chose to engage the English, recognizing that every option had its risks, encouraged me eager to continue reading.
Much as I liked certain aspects of the novel, I was not satisfied with the entirety of it.
First, although the author’s narration is professional enough throughout, in no specific place did I consider it exceptional.  I did like many of the similes Pocahontas uses because she relates sensory impressions to facts of nature.
            “still as stones at the bottom of a river”
            “limbs twisted like the oak tree”
            “her arms and legs brown and smooth like the skin of a water snake”
            “his hair hangs to his shoulders like wet vines”
I felt, however, that her presentation of sensory description in scenes involving dialogue could occasionally have been more precise, more what the senses actually experience than what the mind easily generalizes.  The narration in the example below is a good example.  It is adequate, not exceptional.
The urge to run after him is strong; I take a step in his direction and then stop when I see Winganuske [her father’s newest wife] at the door of my father’s house.
“What’s the matter, Pocahontas?” she murmurs.  “Is your future husband leaving you already?”  The smile on her face does not match the tone of her words.
“He is not my husband,” I mutter, the skin on my cheeks burning.
“And whose fault is that?” she asks.
“You don’t know anything about me and Kocoum,” I say, my lips quivering and my voice shaking in my throat.  “Why can’t you leave us alone?”
Second, I am not a fan of first person narration.  Pocahontas tells us her thoughts, feelings, understandings, and actions.  At the beginning of the novel she is eleven-years-old.  Her primary conflict, once we get past Smith’s averted execution, is her difficulty in making a life-changing choice.  Should she marry her handsome suitor with whom she has had sex and thereafter immerse herself entirely in the ways of her culture or pursue her remarkable opportunity (her friendship with Smith) to grow beyond the limitations of her culture by learning what the strange, intriguing Englishmen could teach her?  It is a worthy conflict around which an engrossing historical novel could be constructed, but I felt the author fell short of accomplishing that.  (Maybe her forthcoming second installment -- Part Two -- will succeed)  Instead, we read repeated questioning of whom she really loves, the suitor or Smith.  The novel ends without any progress being made toward resolving the conflict.  To pad content, the author invents other conflicts: her father’s newest wife clearly dislikes her; her best friend disappears after Powhatan chooses the girl to sleep with Smith, a native custom afforded guests.  After Smith is released by Powhatan to return to Jamestown, I lost interest in the novel.  The only question that I wanted answered was how much more would Powhatan tolerate being used by the English before he accepted the fact that he could not live next to them in peace.  Utilizing third person points of view that focuses on Powhatan and Smith as well as Pocahontas would have dramatized better the second half of the novel.