Thursday, December 13, 2018

Marooned (Joseph Kelly)

European exploration (and exploitation) of what is now America has a long and (at times) mysterious history to it. We all know about the Pilgrims, the Mayflower, the first Thanksgiving, and the other lore that arose to help shape the American story. We were also educated on Jamestown, Pocahontas, John Smith, and the gradual rise of Virginia to colonial prominence, but many of us know little of the struggles that the Jamestown colony endured in its first years.

Joseph Kelly’s Marooned is a well-researched book that tackles the beginnings of Jamestown (and Bermuda) through the trials and tribulations of its first years, how a shipwreck helped create the first seeds for Bermuda’s founding a few years later, and how early Jamestown was marked by general incompetence, hunger, and an ebb and flow of relations with the native population. Kelly spends a lot of time talking about how many early colonists simply “melted away” into the wilderness and assimilated into the native communities that resided nearby, and how John Smith’s leadership in Jamestown was marked by a hybrid between a native chief and local warlord. None of this was the stuff of Plymouth lore or Puritan aspiration but much of it came out of necessity and in Smith’s case, because of a dash of ego and bravado.

Marooned’s strongest argument is the one Kelly puts forth at the end, stating “the truly American story is the lives of the discontents. We need to discard that image of a city shining on a hill . . . our city does not shine. It is messy. It is the nature of a free society.” From Smith to Paine to a gentleman of the name of Stephen Hopkins, Kelly shares the stories of the messy, the ugly, and often crazy early colonists who gradually became a part of our American story.