The Weight of Smoke: A Novel of the Jamestown Colony
In 1607, the English founded the Jamestown colony in the New World, led by men who considered themselves gentlemen. Not accustomed to physical labor, they also lacked survival instincts and relied on Captain John Smith to guide them to gold and riches. This novel is the first in a trilogy comprising the imagined diaries of Captain Smith, a man whose idol and champion is English privateer Francis Drake. Although the novel is primarily written in the first person, an old mariner named Jonas Profit, who served with Drake, tells the settlers of Drake’s adventures in the Caribbean fighting the Spanish while attempting to steal their gold.
The author is a marvelous wordsmith, occasionally using poetry in his prose: “The next day the world was eyes and trumpet calls. A sky of banners and ladies graced the city’s walls.” His story-within-a-story, the adventures of Francis Drake several years prior to the establishment of Jamestown and Smith’s adventures, is handled cleverly. Minkoff demonstrates the difference in class structure between the higher classes (the gentlemen) and lower classes (the sailors). It’s amazing that the colony ever succeeded. The importance of Drake’s story helped me understand Captain Smith’s drive to explore the coast of North America, as he tried to locate the Northwest Passage to the Pacific. The author also introduces Pocahontas and Powhatan and explains the effect of the English settlement on the local Native American tribes – who try to maintain their culture as they war amongst each other – as well as the “magic” of tobacco, the weight of smoke. The novel is not a quick read, but one to be savored.