Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America • James Horn • New York: Basic Books, 2005 • xii, 338 pp. • $26.00
Reviewed by James D. Rice, associate professor of history at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh. He is the author of "Escape from Tsenacommacah: Chesapeake Algonquians and the Powhatan Menace," in Peter Mancall, ed., The Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550–1624 (forthcoming).
There is no shortage of books about the Jamestown colony these days. Although it is a topic of perennial interest, the rapidly approaching 400th anniversary of Jamestown's founding has inspired a number of new publications. James Horn's new book on the subject stands out from this growing crowd, for he has successfully integrated state-of-the-art scholarship into a compelling narrative that ordinary folks will enjoy and scholars will respect.
Narratives work best when they focus on a limited cast of characters that readers can get to know well and when they build suspense by raising questions (and delaying the answers). Horn succeeds on both counts, centering much of his story around people such as John Smith, Pocahontas, and the English soldier-administrator Thomas Dale, all the while keeping us wondering how the deeply troubled Jamestown colony could possibly avoid extinction. Remarkably, foreknowledge that the colony survived does not ruin the suspense, for Horn skillfully draws readers into the early seventeenth century with vivid descriptions of the hardships and reversals that repeatedly led colonists and onlookers to predict Jamestown's imminent demise.
Narratives also contain half-hidden interpretations; though seldom made explicit, they are embedded in the story. In Horn's story, England's emerging imperial competition with Spain does much to explain both Jamestown's travails and its survival, as do political intrigues in England and factionalism among Jamestown's financial backers. Another recurring theme is the profound lack of understanding between natives and newcomers, which bred fear, suspicion, and ultimately violence. But would better cross-cultural awareness have fostered more peaceable relations? Horn's narrative suggests not: instead, such moments forced Indians and colonists to realize just how incompatible their interests really were. Also woven into Horn's story is an intriguing answer to the question of where the "lost colonists of Roanoke" disappeared to after abandoning their colony about 1587.
Narratives also work because they leave so much out; to include every available detail would bury the most compelling characters in a heap of minutiae and smother the suspense in a mountain of facts. Horn avoids this difficulty by placing Europeans in the foreground. This is not to say that Horn downplays the Native American presence. On the contrary: because colonists continually had to reckon with the Indians, they appear on nearly every page. Yet readers will learn little here about Algonquian political culture, social life, or religion; for that, one must turn to Helen Rountree's Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough (2005), Karen Kupperman's Indians and English (2000), and Frederic Gleach's Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia (1997).
Thanks to Horn's mastery of the secondary literature, his immersion in the classic accounts of English observers at Jamestown, and his carefully crafted narrative, this is among the best of the numerous books timed to coincide with the commemorations of the founding of Jamestown. Subsequent writers will be hard-pressed to match this impressive combination of scholarly synthesis, original interpretation, and accessible prose.