Presented as a memoir of Captain John Smith, founder of Jamestown Colony, Virginia in 1607, The Weight of Smoke (McPherson & Co, 389 pages) is the work of a self-described antiquarian, rare books dealer whose imagination is stacked to the ceiling with historic archives and Elizabethan letters. With this volume of historical fiction, Minkoff truly does seem to inhabit the language of those times.
Smith’s narration has a reflexivity to it that radically alters the reader’s sense of time. Every line is both fraught with Smith’s rich backstory and, at the same time, is nervously peering into his bleak future. Such tricks with time are only possible in literary narrative. And it’s a reading experience that is mind-expanding. If his narration had a shape it would torus-like, perhaps, or arabesque, but definitely not linear.
In an early scene Smith is rowing to shore with fellow colonists, mostly gentlemen well-turned out in ceremonial armor accompanied by their “lazy servants.” One of the gentlemen, whom Smith has insulted by insisting that he do his part at an oar, produces a considered speech on the proper place of the aristocracy, common man and the savage, comparing the arrangement to the orderly motions of the heavens: “there is in man an orbit, an assignment, a rational order, certified by natural law: the poor to work; the worthy to think and govern; the savage to be lifted from his naked state…” Smith notes that the crew, hearing the speech,
“murmured its approval. Chests swelled in pride. Armor strained at its buckles. I’d seen it all before: soldiers filling the prisons of their fears with the alloy of dreams. Someone wiped his eyes. The terms ‘a natural leader’ and ‘golden tongue’ floated around the deck. The boat moved more smoothly now, on hopeful waters. A deer sprang up the sandy bank. ‘Shall I take a shot?’ someone said. A gun was raised.
‘No,’ I ordered as the smoking hammer fell. The concussion rocked the boat. The bullet missed. ‘The savages now know where we are.’
‘It will be easier for us to find them,’ said Newport.
Innocence is a noose looking for a tree, I thought to myself. At the bow, fish turmoiled in the clear waters. Fins flashed and fell against the wooden hull. A dull thud dissolved into lethargic scratching as the wake’s fishy catch folded upon itself. The air was shattered with frightened geese. Between man and sky a living shadow rose, filing the air with the hysteria of its own echoing fear.”
This scene lays out the coming tensions of the colony, foretells how most of them will die, and even sketches out the tragic flaw of the entire enterprise of European settlement of the Americas. Smith seems to outline the first U.S. American: he is independent, contemptuous of privilege, hardworking, upwardly mobile, a self-made man. In some ways, the novel is about becoming American; not all of it is good.
There is quite a lot of violence in this book, as there is in the history it mimics. The English fight each other. The English fight the Spanish. They all fight the natives and the natives fight each other. There are few women in the story, with the exception of the native princess Pocahontas, who, if Smith’s tale had been true to facts, would have been about eleven at the time of their meeting. But Minkoff’s Smith narrates her into a sexually attractive young woman. This is a history for men.
Smith’s backstory is revealed in a long digression. He was an adventurer, a child-pirate (aboard Drake’s ship), a crusader, who beheads three turks acquiring heraldry depicting that achievement. He is captured, sold to an infidel lady and wins her affection, becomes enslaved by her brother, murders himself into freedom, gets out of his iron collar, goes on to help settle the new land. He is a tough, red-headed, five-foot tall Englishman, whose character appeals to a nostalgic—and problematic—vision of manhood.
Another long digression is offered to fill out the larger context for the story of the founding of Jamestown. As the colonists sit around a campfire, an old mariner (Smith’s one true peer) and former alchemist, who had accidentally poisoned his wife and child trying to treat their illnesses, recounts his tale as a pirate aboard Sir Francis Drake’s ship. Drake’s young brother had just died and a number of his crew were dying from same unknown disease. To the horror of his crew, Drake decides to perform an autopsy on his brother and to make a map of his insides. His comrades refuse to “mutilate the dead,” but Drake is determined to learn something from his brother’s death. Drake’s pragmatism and valuing knowledge however acquired, earns the reader’s respect. Afterward he confesses,
“There is a world in the flesh where some continents pump thoughts and others sculpt sight, where rivers flow in bile through caverns of bone and mountains heave in flesh. We have too crude a bark, too crude a lens, to sail those shores with certainty. We are still trespassers in our own meat. This I know—my brother and the others bled to death from some internal wounds. How they were caused, I do not know. How to prevent them, I do not know. All I know is I plan to stay and take the Spanish gold.”
He is a pirate to the end.
This volume is the first of three in the “Land of Whispers” series. The first volume is concerned with Smith’s initiation into the Americas; The Dragons of the Storm, the second volume, treats his trial and expulsion; the final volume, The Leaves of Fate is about Smith’s exile to England. Despite Smith’s best intentions, the colony eventually becomes a gateway for slavery and tobacco plantations.
The book has been optioned by Zoetrope, a film studio, founded by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas and may appear as a mini-series that will undoubtedly appeal to men and boys, who, though, like Minkoff perhaps, they may condemn the kind of toxic masculinity that is on display here, they still thrill to see it in action. The Weight of Smoke may fall into the tradition of DeFoe’s Moll Flanders or Richardson’s Pamela, fictions presented as religious confessional narratives and/or cautionary tales, whose salacious details would-be pious readers thoroughly enjoyed.