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Tidewater: A Novel of Pocahontas and the Jamestown Colony - Libbie Hawker

The story of Pocahontas has become part of American mythology. The legend of the Indian princess who befriended the colonists of Jamestown, Virginia and saved the life of John Smith has been depicted in numerous books and films, usually in a highly romanticized way. In the animated Disney movie, as in many other portrayals, Pocahontas and John Smith were in love, star-crossed by their incompatible cultures.


It all makes for a great story, but these tales bear little resemblance to the history. In Tidewater, Libbie Hawker puts some of the historical back in historical fiction with a novel that sticks much closer to the actual events but turns out to be more interesting than the idealized version.


Pocahontas (a nickname meaning “Mischief”) was actually a child when she first met John Smith and certainly not a love interest. She was adept with languages, as was Smith, helping the colonists communicate with her father, the most important chief of the tribes in the region. Hawker uses Powhatan words unapologetically but naturally, adding to the sense of this unusual linguistic partnership of a Native American child and an English settler.


Pocahontas and Smith were both a little out of step with their respective people. Their mutual feeling of not quite fitting in formed another basis for their bond. Pocahontas unfortunately shared a weakness with the colonists as well, a hubris that came of overestimating abilities and underestimating challenges. Though more excusable in a child, the mistakes of all involved had devastating consequences that often erupted into violence. The constant threat of starvation coupled with the colonists’ fundamental misunderstanding of the native tribes sowed the seeds of conflict that would be passed on for generations.


Hawker creates a story that is by necessity much darker than the Disney version. Her research gives the novel authenticity, but it is woven into the story and the characters. Their decisions and interactions are plausible based on the time and circumstances. While some questions will never be fully answered by history, it could have gone like this.



Pocahontas (1616) (Image: Wikipedia)