So last summer my husband and I got into podcasts, and he especially loved listening to Stuff You Missed in History Class. To keep me entertained, he looked specifically for Shakespeare-Tudor related episodes. One that had us both "hmm"-ing was "The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown." Briefly, the hosts Sarah Dowdey and Katie Lambert outlined the ill-fated voyage of the large Sea Venture relief mission to Jamestown in 1609 which wrecked in the Bermudas. The Folger also covered it in their 2007 exhibit Shakespeare and American Life (where you can actually read some of Strachey's account). Settlers made do with island life for about a year while building a new ship to take them the rest of the way to Virginia. The ship's historians, though, wrote detailed records of the wildlife, vegetation, and daily life of the 150 survivors, which made their story not only interesting, but incredible.
When I finally started reading this book, I recognized elements of interest from that 'cast: St. Elmo's Fire, the hogs and trusting fowls of the island, mutiny, and it made me want to give the 20-minute 'cast another listen for facts. However, Kathryn Johnson did her homework, and I really didn't need to return to the history books until I was done and wanted to.
That's a lot of introduction, but I'm so impressed not only with this book's gripping personal struggle, but also how richly detailed the world is - and how steeped in life. Because who seriously expects a shipwreck romance featuring a character who may or may not be Shakespeare to be historically accurate? My experience says notsomuch, but this book was on.
Ok. Story: Elizabeth Persons is a passenger on the Sea Venture as a servant to the horrible Mistress Horton. She has a terrible past - father executed for being a Catholic under Elizabeth's reign, mother and siblings lost to the plague, and an aversion to men for their filthy abusive lusts. The ship wrecks, the survivors do what they can, and it turns out that Elizabeth's knowledge of herbs and vegetation makes the food they're able to find and cook palatable, and she gains a small life for herself away from Mistress Horton's abuse and threats. She finds a friend in the ship's historian, William Strachey, who shows an inclination towards poesy over figures, and as a fellow secret-keeper he advises her to go by her middle name and start a new life. She does, and with his help convinces most of the survivors to call her Miranda. The island is not without danger, though, of all sorts - not the least of which is the possibility of falling in love. NOT with William, as the cover suggests, but with someone a little less expected and a lot more satisfying.
Elizabeth-Miranda's revelations about herself and about William Strachey grow subtlely throughout the novel - unfolding clues and secrets only when necessary, and occasionally throwing spotlights on either of them as discoveries are made. Lines of poetry, favorite reading material, family history - it never comes before it's needed and never feels obvious. I fell in love with these two characters (as well as Thomas Powell, the ship's first cook) over and over again as they revealed themselves to each other and to me. Strachey is an older gentleman, an enigma, and acts as a father to Miranda (making his Prospero that much more lovely to me) while she reinvents herself. In one of my favorite (and there were many) passages into his life, he tells her why he boarded Sea Venture (besides escaping some insidious enemies in London):
...He sighed, taking out his pipe, but did not light it. "I suppose I dreamt of faraway lands, such as those about which I have always written but never seen with my own eyes."I love a book with well- researched history, and believable human characters. In her Historical Note, Johnson writes that the names of all of the characters came from the ship's real register. Though she only speculates about the identity of William Strachey, it's fun to figure this into the vast and complicated web of unknown information we have about the poet Shakespeare. She makes inferences for her William's personality from contemporary sources, and it would warm all the points of my heart to think that this William were the William - mercurial, compassionate, practical to human nature, and dreamy in his daily life.
Frowning, I studied his face.
He gave me a lopsided smile. "Until you are triple the age you are now, Miranda, you will not understand. We old men hunger for a last great adventure."
"You are not old." Although I had called him that in my mind often enough. "You are hale and hearty. You will write many more exciting plays and - "
"Is that not the point?" His voice rose, tight with emotion. "I have always written about great moments, in history or imagination. I have provided for my audience grand and daring adventures, but I have never lived them! Do you not understand the difference, child? I have never ventured beyond Britain's shores. Until now."
His gaze wandered off beyond the trees, across the sea to mysterious unknown lands.
I know I don't give ratings, but ONE MILLION POINTS to this book for being everything I didn't expect and apparently needed.
- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Original edition (September 7, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0061965316
- ISBN-13: 978-0061965319