Pocahontas and the origins of Tidewater by Libbie Hawker

Posted by on Aug 18, 2014 in Colonial America, Featured Book, Historical Research | 2 comments

Tidewater185x280I first got the idea to write a novel about Pocahontas years ago, while I was working in a bookstore where I found a biography about the famous Native American “princess.” Curious, and thinking this would be a familiar and unchallenging story, I started reading the biography on my lunch break. I very quickly realized that the true history of this woman’s life was nothing like the myth that had made her live on through the centuries.

The idea that historical truth can be so dramatically different from the stories we think we know has been in the back of my mind ever since, and has been a common theme in much of my historical-fiction writing…but it all started for me with discovering the true story of Pocahontas.

Naturally, I had a strong desire to tell her story, sticking as close to known facts as possible, ever since that realization struck me. But it took a few years of research and mulling over the specifics of the vast and complex history of Jamestown and the Powhatan Confederacy before I hit on the right approach and the best cast of point-of-view characters.

Because of the hugeness and importance of this historical story, it was often emotional and trying to write. As I worked on Tidewater, one of the things I came to feel acutely is the massive disparity between women and men in history.

Many people are aware of how few women are represented by the annals of history, and I knew this was true in an abstract sort of way. But it wasn’t until I was working on Tidewater that I came to really understand just how poorly history typically treats most women.

When our deeds and contributions are recorded by historians at all, it’s almost always in the context of how we related to the men of our times – as one can see clearly in the way people of today remember Pocahontas. If you consider only the well-known myth, she wasn’t a woman acting on her own, for her own means or betterment. She was in love with John Smith (or so the myth would have us believe) – she rescued John Smith – everything she did, as far as history remembers, was for and about John Smith

But in spite of the way history constantly relegates us to “supporting roles,” acting as rewards or motivations for great men, women have always played an equal part in shaping politics, culture, and history. It’s our status as second-class citizens that sticks us on the sidelines of memory, and as I worked on Tidewater, I came to really appreciate the implications of belonging to a group with “less-than” status.

And yet even though I’m a woman, and women are sidelined in history, I’m a white woman, which affords me some privileges that women and men of color don’t have access to. I wondered as I wrote, if history treats white women as less-than, how much more extreme is this effect for non-white women in European and North American history, who are remembered not just for their relationships to men, but towhite men specifically?

The vast unfairness of history really struck me throughout development of this book, and made me want to work even harder as a historical novelist – to devote my career to uncovering the stories of real people that history has buried under myth or sidelined in favor of the stories of more privileged groups.

The Pocahontas myth is one that is hugely beloved by many people around the world, especially in the USA. But I knew that Pocahontas was a real woman with a true history, and that the story of her life had little to do with how she related to one white man (with whom she was almost certainly not in love, anyway!)

Pocahontas’s tragically short life was lived in the midst of the most disruptive changes her culture had ever seen. And she played a central part in those changes, for she, like the rest of her people, had little choice but to try to adapt or die.

At the center of my novel is this looming presence of disruptive change. The book is an exploration of how different individuals might choose to face such dramatic disruption when it comes.

Pocahontas, who is obviously one of the main characters, is torn between personal ambition and the necessity of bridging a gap between two worlds at great personal cost — because nobody else can be that bridge but she. Without some sort of go-between, it’s a certainty that there is no hope for any kind of peace. And yet sacrificing herself in this way is not what she truly wants to do.

Her uncle Opechancanough, another main character, chooses the path of resistance, pushing back against the forces that seek to change his world even when he knows it may be ultimately futile to fight.

Powhatan, not a point-of-view character but still an important one, represents the choice to withdraw and flee, to protect what shreds of his culture might remain in the wake of catastrophic disruption.

And John Smith, the third point-of-view character in the novel, represents the complex feelings of one who can’t help but force change upon people who have no desire to be uprooted and disturbed.

I worked hard to portray Pocahontas and her people as accurately as I could, giving in to the popular myth only in the most superficial ways, and only just enough that Tidewater would still be recognizable to the casual reader as “the Pocahontas story.” But I hope that my novel will give all readers, even those searching for another iteration of the familiar, some idea of what life was like for the people of the Powhatan Confederacy as the sun began to set on their empire.

I hope, too, that seeing Pocahontas in her own light, outside of the requisite context of her supposed “love” for a famous white man, will make her more real to everybody who reads her story.

She was an exceptionally intelligent person with many talents, a charming personality, and a generous heart. She and her family shaped history in such incredible ways that the influence of the Powhatans is still evident in American culture and in the English language to this day.

Without Pocahontas, the history of the United States would have been very different for both Europeans and Native Americans. And she deserves to be remembered for the individual she truly was, not for what the mythos of history later forced her to be.

Libbie Hawker, August 18, 2014

2 Comments

  1. Will have to look for it. More than a passing interest. I’m descended from some of the founders of the Virginia colony who owned some of the first Tidewater plantations & my great great grandfather’s step mom was a sixth generation (I think it was) descendant of Pocahontas.

  2. I want to tell you how much I enjoyed Tidewater. Poor John Rolfe gets forgotten in all the hype on John Smith. I truly was informed by the book and entertained at the same time. I gave you 5 stars on Amazon but am delighted to tell what I thought of your efforts as personally as is possible.