The Bookshelf: Imagining the Lost Colony of Roanoke

Jun 11, 2016

The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features novelist Ed Gray, of Lyme, New Hampshire. The fate of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke has puzzled historians for centuries. In the late 1500s, English settlers attempted to colonize the island, but something went wrong and the colony failed. It could have been disease, or conflict with Native Americans. We’re just not sure.

In his new novel Left in the Wind, Gray imagines the gaps in our knowledge. The novel is a fictional diary of Emme Merrimoth, a woman with ties to several of the major, real-life people who attempted to settle the island. Gray spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about the novel.

Ed Gray's Top 5 Book Recommendations:

1. Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584-1606 by David Beers Quinn. "Fourteen years after his death, Quinn remains the unchallenged master of the history of the early English voyages of discovery to the New World. I don’t believe a single detail of the known history of the Roanoke colony failed to come under his famously intense and scholarly scrutiny, including all of the speculative theories as to what became of the lost colonists. Most of it is collected in this academic but very readable book. As I wrote Left in the Wind, I kept asking myself, “What would Quinn say? Could he argue that this scene couldn’t have happened? That this known character, either English or Native American, could not have acted that way?” I’m pretty sure he could not, with any part of it."

2.   Big Chief Elizabeth: The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America by Giles Milton. "If Quinn’s book is an Oxford post-grad year, Milton’s is the History Channel miniseries. Accessible, very enjoyable, and surprisingly complete. Weighted a bit too much toward the background machinations of the Elizabethan court for what I wanted, but worth every well-written page. If you’re going to read one history of The Lost Colony, this is it."

3.   Argall: The True Story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith by William T. Vollmann. "What to say about Vollman? A brilliant mind stuck in some sort of literary hyper-drive. Wherever he’s going, the destination isn’t for the rest of us. But it’s a hell of a ride. I’ve always thought that a good way to understand a concept – in this case trying to find historical truth by wrapping it in fiction -- is to try to envision it in its extremes. At least start Argall, give it enough pages to envelop you in its – what? Ethos? Tone? Madness? You decide. At least you’ll have seen the extreme. And you may have found the truth."

4.   A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman. "I’ve always preferred reading fiction, but this is the book that turned me on to narrative nonfiction. I was looking into the origins of the Robin Hood myth, trying to find a story hook for a screenplay, so I borrowed A Distant Mirror from the Baker Library at Dartmouth. Tuchman barely mentions Robin Hood, but she hooked me. Don’t start this book unless you’re ready for a 600-page total immersion." 

5.   Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is on this list because I can’t make a book list of any kind without including it. That old saw about the book that changed your worldview, the one that left you breathless page after page, the one you literally could not put down? Yeah. That one. For me, it’s this one."

Tell us about why the English decided to try to colonize Roanoke.

They were in the midst of their great war with Spain at the time. The Spanish had colonized Florida, primarily in Saint Augustine, so strategically it was the proper thing to do. Elizabeth had granted to Sir Walter Raleigh a tremendous amount of Virginia (which he named after the Virgin Queen), so all he had to do was to establish some colonies in order to patent his work.

When they finally found the 117 or so people from England to go to Roanoke, several women went along. Among them was Emme, the woman who serves as the narrator in this fictional diary. What inspired you to choose her?

The story itself is what inspired me. The kind of fiction I love to write is historical fiction, which concerns characters that are buried in the interstices of known history. It involves people who were present and a part of major events in history, but who were small enough so that the main historical record does include them. This was an ideal situation for me, because the only record that existed was of the man who led the colonization.

Of these 117 people on the island, each of them was a potential narrator of this story. But I decided I didn’t want it to be a male because I didn’t want him to have an ax to grind in it. It needed to be someone who was old enough and educated enough to be able to record what was going on—the classic fly on the wall. So I decided it had to be one of the adult women. It couldn’t be one of the wives of one of the assistants; I didn’t want her to be the mother of one of the two known children who were born there; I wanted her to be an independent person.

The names of all the 117 people were recorded by John White in his journal, and I randomly picked Emme Merrimoth. That’s the sum total of what’s known about her. I decided to do more research about her, on what her life in London might have been before. I created a character, let her come alive, and let her tell her story.

Emme, in particular, is in a great position to allow people now a window into what it would have been like for women in general on this island. They are at risk for dying from complications in pregnancy, for example, as at least one woman does, and of course she is also subject to the unwanted sexual attention of all the frustrated, pent-up men who are on the island with her.

Yes, and that was her life back in London, too. I didn’t want her to be suddenly a changed person when she got there. Once I decided that Emme would be a house servant, I also wanted her to be intimately involved with one of the senior families so that she could be listening in and recording what was happening. Women then were educated and literate, so that wasn’t something I had to make up. Even people like Emme, who were wives and daughters of tradespeople, were educated. She would have been capable of writing this journal. She, like most women of her age in the late 1500’s, got married when she was 14, started bearing children when she was 15, and lost three of her children and two husbands.

So by the time it was time for John White and Walter Raleigh to recruit people for this colony, she was a near-perfect candidate. She was working as a domestic servant in the household of one of the senior couples who were going to go. That would be the Harveys. Eleanor Harvey was pregnant at the time of leaving for the new world, so she brought along Emme as a domestic servant and to be a nursemaid when the baby was born.

  You had to do an incredible amount of research for this book. What was it like writing fiction that deals with so much fact—did you find it constricting or liberating?

It can be constricting, but I like to play a game with myself. I want to write a fiction that takes place in a known, famous historical time, but I want that fiction to be so accurate that no deeply knowledgeable historian can dispute that anything that happens in this fictional telling could not have happened. The way I do that is that I immerse myself in the period. I immersed myself in all of the accounts of the voyagers, not just John White himself. I found all the first person accounts I could, and also found the historical record.

A wonderful writer who died in 2007, David Bears Quinn, was an acknowledged academic master of all of this stuff. He wrote all of the books. There’s nothing that happened on any of those voyages—even in terms of the speculation later—that didn’t’ come under his really close scrutiny. So you could read his books, and there are some other readable ones too.  You can read the original sources and you can also read the historical record that is written by historians later. If you do that, like I did, you should have the ability to just plant yourself on those ships leaving Plymouth and heading to the new world. Once you do that, then you can just pick a person. And then the last thing you want is a true story.

Why do you think it is that so many centuries later, people are still fascinated by what may have happened at Roanoke?

Everybody loves a mystery, and this one is just profound. These people were the English people who settled the country as we know it now. And they just vanished. It wasn’t some lost army regiment; it wasn’t some small set of families that went up into a valley and didn’t come back. This was a fully complicated colony. These were people from every walk of English life at the time: men, women, and children. And on top of that we know their names, we know who they were married to, and we know which children were there. You can get to know these people. And then then they just vanished. That’s clearly what people love to think about.