Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke • James Horn • New York: Basic Books, 2010 • 296 pp. • $26.00
Reviewed by Lorri Glover, the John Francis Bannon S.J. Professor in the department of history at Saint Louis University. She is the coauthor, with Daniel Blake Smith, of The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America.
To follow up his masterful exploration of England's first successful New World colony, A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America (2005), James Horn offers a nuanced, lively narrative of England's earlier failure at Roanoke. The available evidence is sparse and subjective—created by Englishmen with a particular audience and agenda in mind. We have nothing from the Secotan Indians and their neighbors and next to nothing from the vast majority of folks who wagered their lives on Roanoke. As for the surviving sources, dissembling and intrigue run throughout the texts. It is a credit to Horn's skill as a writer and his capacious understanding of English America that he produced from this evidence a confident, character-driven, compelling story.
From the start of the book, which opens with an imagined, emotionally gripping account of John White revisiting his fateful decision to leave Roanoke, Horn breathes life into his subjects. Such men as White, Manteo, Walter Ralegh, and Wingina emerge as complex, full characters. He succeeds admirably at mining the evidence to uncover the actions and motivations of these and other leading figures in the Roanoke experiment. Horn is a skillful detective who tells the reader when he is speculating and why. The reader thus feels confident trusting his conjecture.
Horn gracefully moves his story from the splendor of Queen Elizabeth's court, through the perils of Atlantic crossings, to the wonders of North America. He is particularly successful at capturing the contingency surrounding colonization. The best laid plans could be undone in a moment by bad weather, a capricious ship's captain, or an impulsive act of violence. Of course, we know the ultimate outcome—the very title of the book forecasts the end. But Horn's vivid re-creation of this extraordinary episode keeps the reader engaged.
The book is strictly narrative. Horn does not even explain how his interpretation of the lost colonists' fate differs from earlier theories, except in his footnotes. (Spoiler Alert: he believes a small group went to Croatoan Island, while the majority moved into the interior and lived with the Tuscaroras and Chowanocs for twenty years. When the first Jamestown colonists arrived, Wahunsonacock ordered the Roanoke survivors killed, fearing they would ally with the newcomers against the Powhatans.) Nowhere does Horn explain the historical—not to mention historiographical—significance of Roanoke. Some historians used to scholarly monographs may find this vexing. Larger themes are present, though, but imbedded in the storyline. Readers learn about the intense competition between early modern Protestants and Catholics; European dynastic rivalries over the New World; settlers' misguided dreams of finding gold and a passage east; alliances and competitions in Indian country; and the profound differences between Indian and English worldviews. There is as well a potentially powerful lesson about historical writing, about using pace and character to convey a story and trusting readers to intuit significance.
Horn offers an imaginative, eloquently reasoned reinterpretation of what happened to the colonists based on close reading of reports from Machumps, a Powhatan who traveled to London in 1609, and John Smith, recounting his conversations with Opechancanough and Wahunsonacock. But Horn leaves some questions unanswered about these men's motives. Deception and confusion pervaded colonial-Indian exchanges. In the same conversation in which Wahunsonacock told Smith about the Roanoke survivors, Smith pointedly lied to Wahunsonacock about how long the Jamestown settlers intended to stay. Perhaps dissembling went both ways. Or (and this would require no stretch of imagination) maybe Smith was a less than reliable reporter. Horn does not close the case on Roanoke. But he has found the lost colonists in an even more important way: they and their Indian neighbors come to life in this splendid book.