Charles I is on the verge of plunging England into civil war, and John Tradescant, royal gardener, flees the grief of his wife’s death to collect exotic plants and rarities in the new world of the Virginia colony. His guide is Suckahanna, a young Powhatan girl. After promising to marry her, Tradescant returns to England to discover that his father has died and has put forth the efficient Hester Pooks as a wife capable of guarding his children and the rarities collection which is a major part of their livelihood. John marries Hester but dreams of Suckahanna, eventually returning to Virginia to start a plantation, find Suckahanna, and escape being pulled into the civil war. His loyalties remain torn, and when the Powhatan go to war against the settlers, John must choose which world he will call his own.
This novel is the sequel to Earthly Joys, the story of John’s father, but it is easily read by itself. The novel is rich in period detail, completely convincing in atmosphere and characterization, and extremely well written. The descriptions of Tradescant’s work with plants are especially vivid. Gregory expertly contrasts the harshness of life in the new world with the comfort of life in England, but at the same time, shows that the political situation in England makes it a far from safe place. Unfortunately, the vacillation and sometimes downright stupidity of Tradescant’s character doesn’t inspire much sympathy, though it does make him seem convincingly human. His penchant for abandoning those he purportedly loves may lead the reader to lose all compassion for him; it is much easier to identify with the steady Hester Pooks or even John’s misguided son. The story also runs a little long, but overall it is an absorbing read that will immerse the reader in the period.