Monday, December 28, 2009
REVIEW: White Seed
Title: White Seed: The Untold Story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke
Author: Paul Clayton
Genre: historical fiction
Point of Sale: Amazon
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib
According to his biography, Paul Clayton became a writer due to his experiences in Vietnam. Ironically, his first book, Calling Crow, has nothing to do with Vietnam, being rather a novel about the Indian experience under the Spanish settlement of the 1600s. This book and two sequels were published by Berkley. Paul then self-published his Vietnam novel, and re-released his older books. With White Seed, Paul returns to the historical fiction genre, focusing on the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke.
In the dedication to White Seed, Paul expresses his admiration for James Michener, who writes historical fiction at epic length. At 482 pages, White Seed is definitely at a Michener-esc length. The book is largely the story of Maggie Hagger, a seventeen year old Irish serving girl who signs on to Raleigh’s famed attempt to establish an English colony on the coast of what became modern North Carolina. Maggie, an attractive red-head, is fleeing criminal trouble in England, and she’s broke, so she becomes an indentured servant to the Governor’s daughter, and eventual nanny to Virginia Dare, the first European born in North America.
Not much is known of what really happened in the Roanoke colony, especially after Governor White departed early in the first year of the colony’s establishment. By the time he gets back with a relief force, three years later, the colonists are gone. Paul extrapolates from these few facts and the general conduct of European colonists to tell a tale of murder, betrayal, greed and stupidity. There’s also a love story, as Maggie and several other colonists marry into the Croatans, the only friendly Indians in the area.
Paul Clayton’s story is certainly plausible, and fits into both the known history and the persistent rumors of Englishmen living with the Indians that greeted the Jamestown settlement (1607). It’s at times not a pretty tale, with English class warfare and extreme greed for gold causing many of the problems facing the colonists. One of the subplots, that of White’s repeated efforts to mount a relief expedition, paints English society of the time in even poorer light. To be fair, Clayton’s Indians, especially the war chief Powhatan, aren’t painted as particularly noble either.
In general, I found the book to be entertaining, although I have a couple of writerly nits to pick. First, Paul uses an omniscient point of view, with the narrative thread jumping from head to head at will. I found it very difficult at times to keep track of whose thoughts I was reading. Second, the story, especially the middle third, tended to drag. There was not enough conflict or actions to drive the plot. Although I respect the epic novel form, I do think Paul could have trimmed the book significantly without losing anything. Sometimes, less truly is more.
Lastly, I felt a number of the characters in White Seed were uninteresting. Maggie made a sympathetic character, but she was at times too passive. Too many of the other characters blurred into one another, becoming faceless people about whom I cared little.
Having said all of that, I can recommend White Seed for anybody interested in historical fiction or the story of early American settlement. It’s an entertaining and at times informative work, and it stays very close to the known history of the Lost Colony.
Note – I received a galley copy of the book reviewed, which remains my property.