Review of the Day: Blood On the River
An author that writes about Indian raids circa the early 1600s is setting themselves up for a monumental challenge. One, quite frankly, that I don’t envy a bit. I mean, it’s a bit easier if you’re taking the side or point of view of the Native Americans. There’s a bit of fear that your story is going to be monumentally depressing, but authors like Joseph Bruchac and Michael Dorris have found ways around that. And then some writers for kids decide to go about it in an entirely different way. Let’s take the P.O.V. of the settlers. Better still, the James Town settlers. Best of all, the boy assigned to be the servant of that remarkable personal publicity machine and self-promoter, Captain John Smith himself. For what she has set out to do, author Elisa Carbone has done an admirable job. I may not agree with whether or not this was a job that needed to be done, but I can appreciate the work she’s put into “Blood On the River”.
Samuel Collier is on a one-way street to nowhere. He’s a thief, a fighter, and he doesn’t trust anyone or anything. As it happens, however, this is an ideal resume for a kid who’s about to be sent to the New World as the personal assistant to Captain John Smith. Samuel is cunning and ready to knock someone’s teeth out should the need arise. Yet as Smith himself points up, there’s no place for people of a solitary nature in Virginia. With the danger of Indian raids ever present and harsh winters ahead, Samuel must learn to trust people and, what’s more, trust himself. Along the way he observes John Smith’s deft hand with dealing with both Native people and frightened settlers. This is the story of James Town, Smith, Pocahontas, and Samuel Collier backed up by historical references and a whole heaping lot of written records, such as they are.
Much of this book cleared up questions I would have had about the original founding of James Town, had I ever thought to wonder them. Why, for example, did the Virginia Company keep sending people to that death trap otherwise known as Virginia? The answer may be that letters home could only talk about the good things about living in the New World. It was a classic case of good publicity vs. bad publicity, with shady means winning out. I also enjoyed hearing how the Algonquian word, “Wow!”, joined our current vocabulary. Carbone even takes pains to justify this term, even the face of those who claim it come from old Scottish. She makes a strong case, and I for one fully believe she’s correct in her assumptions.
The story did worry me from time to time. Sometimes, it all comes down to historical accuracy in direct opposition with our current stance on white colonialism. When John Smith refers to the Indians as “savages” you know it's historically correct, if problematic. And then there's the fact that Smith is always outsmarting the Indians left and right. When they come to trade for weapons he offers them too heavy cannons and, when they can’t lift them, exchanges them for lightweight beads. But if it’s true... which brings us to determining what is and isn’t true.
Carbone’s Bibliography, source material, cited works, and background information are intense. No one could ever accuse this author for fudging her facts. But what are “facts” anyway? Time and again Carbone uses the only existing written record, trustworthy and not. As she mentions in her Author’s Note, the book includes a section where a thresher and a swordfish kill a whale. This was written down at the time, so she included it, “And yet I have heard that fish don’t act this way”. This might not be such a big deal. So fish do one thing and the person she's referencing at this moment said another. Who cares? Well, it becomes a little more important when it comes down to people. After all, “the modern-day Carib Indians say those stories about their ancestors being cannibals are nothing but lies”. Carbone mentions this, but then goes on to make the Indians out to be cannibals anyway! As for John Smith, he was a notorious exaggerator, using the “facts” in the loosest sense of the term. Sometimes this is a good idea. The ceremony that was interpreted as Pocahontas “saving” John Smith’s life is explained here as something Smith could have misinterpreted at the time. And Carbone really does do a good job at showing the delicate nature of balancing out the colonists needs and the Indians. That is, until the colonists just stop caring and go around slaughtering people. Even with a book that takes John Smith’s side, it’s not hard to figure out who to root for.
Not too long ago I heard a group of librarians discussing this book. By and large they enjoyed it, but one scene in particular struck them as a little peculiar. At one point ten-year-old Pocahontas comes into James Town and challenges Sam and the other boys to races. Then, in order to beat them, she removes her dress and is completely naked. Now you would think that considering the time period in which this takes place, the fact that these boys are from England, and the mores of the era that this would at least raise an eyebrow, if not freak out the boys entirely. Instead they proceed without so much as a whimper. Uh-huh. Suuuure.
In her Author’s Note, Carbone talks about how her novel “Storm Warriors” won the Virginia Jefferson Cup Award. As a result, she was able to go about asking people all over the state what kind of story she should write next. “The answer came over and over: Jamestown. I thought, That old story? John Smith and Pocahontas AGAIN? Booooooring!”. But it’s not. Not at all. I may have some qualms and quibbles, but in the end it’s a fine history and a well-made historical novel for the young ‘uns. Smart and well-researched, it deserves to be given a glance by those interested in that period of American history.
Notes On the Cover: The now properly well-known Bagram Ibatoulline (though not for the book I would have preferred that he be known for) does a wonderful job with this cover. Evocative and doing something with the light of the dying day that anyone would envy, it’s just gorgeous through and through.