Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Tale of Two Queens – Neither of Them Named Pocahantas

ROANOKE, by Margaret Lawrence (Delacorte Press)

"Peepholes – that's what tapestries were good for. You hung them with the broken threads just on top of certain holes in the oak panelling of the wall underneath. Within the wall itself, there was a a space just wide enough for a watcher to walk through." John Mowbray, a "spider" (as spies were called in the Court of England's Elizabeth I) gives us this bit of tradecraft as he snoops on his employers at Hampton Court Palace early on in Margaret Lawrence's astonishingly good new historical novel about the fate of the Roanoke Colony in the New World.
Soon after, we'll listen from behind similar hangings at the Escorial Palace in Madrid as King Philip of Spain grumbles to a minister about his digestion and plots to thwart the British attempts to plunder gold and jewels in Virginia. The eventual translator of this secret document is the same John Mowbray – obviously a spider with valuable skills.
But Mowbray is not the book's most important character, just the cleverly-distanced narrator of Roanoke, who quickly lets his remarkable colleague Gabriel North take and hold center stage. We first meet North – a "tall, slender fellow of
middle age, more unshaven than bearded, his sandy hair frizzled by the river damp... Within the ratty costume of fabric and flesh, he waited out his private apocalypse" - as he saves Queen Elizabeth's life in 1585, fighting off the 24th assassination attempt against her since since her ex-communication by Rome in 1570. For his heroic efforts, North is ordered to set meager sail for the New World in a foolhardy convoy promoted by Sir Walter Raleigh, the Virgin Queen's favorite. "He was the son and grandson of farmers and sailors, and he made the capital error of being proud of it," Mowbray says about Raleigh.
Underfinanced and commanded by inexperienced and unworthy officers, the Roanoke Colony became one of history's most baffling mysteries, its occupants disappearing into the shadows of time.
There was, of course, another Virginia encampment at Jamestown in the 1600s, the one where a Native American Princess called Pocahantas won the hearts of two Englishmen and wound up being presented at court in London. Lawrence's second wonderful conceit (her first was finding in the original Roanoke passenger lists a "single woman named Margaret Lawrence who made it more or less inevitable that I would write this book") was coming up with another legendary queen to rival Elizabeth. North is sent to Virginia to seduce a fictional Native American woman called Na'ia: "Na'iya – so the Secota tribesmen spoke her name, with a slight stop of the throat, as though she took their breath away... She was small in stature, slender of face but strong-muscled, with an elegant economy of movement that seemed to be bred in her...
"Na'ia was quite alone when we caught our first glimpse of her. She might almost have been waiting for us, perfected, opaque as a shell," Mowbray tells us. She and North begin a tangled relationship, he first winning the hearts of the widow's two young children and then earning their mother's love and loyalty. But when North is called back to England by Elizabeth, ("He would never be a spider again," says Mowbray of Gabriel. "His gaze was already fixed on that dangerous spot in the inner distance, the one that means you've caught sight of something...") Na'ia appears to go on with her life as before. Only a brief, heart-breaking final scene on a Breton beach lets us know the truth.

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