March 06, 2008

Review of The Princess Pocahontas

Virginia Watson wrote this fictional version of Pocahontas's life in 1916. Amazingly, it holds up well. I don't know anything about Watson and not much about the Powhatan Indians, but her rendition of their lives is persuasive. It's so rich and detailed that it almost feels like a documentary at times.

Because the copyright has expired, Project Gutenberg has posted the text of The Princess Pocahontas online. Read some of it--perhaps the first few pages--and I think you'll see what I mean.

Here's a representative passage--from Chapter VIII, when Smith first meets Powhatan:Powhatan sat in silence until Smith stood directly before him, and then he spoke:

"We have waited many days and nights to behold thee, wayfarer from across the sea."

Smith, looking up at him, saw a finely built man of about sixty years, with grizzled hair and an air of command. He smiled to himself at the strangeness of his fancy's play, but the air of this savage chieftain, this inborn dignity of one conscious of his power, he had seen in but one other person—Good Queen Bess!

"I too have listened to many voices which have told of thy might, great chief," he answered, speaking the unfamiliar words slowly and distinctly.

Then in the pause that followed the Queen of Appamatuck came forward and held out to Smith a bowl of water for him to wash his hands in. Pocahontas leaned eagerly forward to see whether the water would not wash off some paint from his hands, leaving them the color of her own, for might it not be, she had questioned Claw-of-the-Eagle, that these strangers were only painted white? But even after Smith had wiped his fingers upon the turkey feathers the Queen handed to him, they remained the same tint as his face.

At the command of Nautauquas, the slaves began to bring in food for the feast which preceded any discussion of moment. An enemy, be he the bitterest of an individual or of the tribe, must never be denied hospitality. Baskets and gourds there were filled with sturgeon, turkey, venison, maize bread, berries and roots of various kinds, and earthern cups of pawcohiccora milk made from walnuts. Powhatan had motioned Smith to be seated on a mat beside the fire, and taking the first piece of venison, the werowance threw it into the flames as the customary sacrifice to Okee. Then he was served again, and after him each dish was offered to the prisoner.
Here's the short version of how the book fares as Native history:

The good

The Indians are all intelligent, articulate, and multifaceted. Pocahontas is believable as a bright, curious, and willful 13-year-old. She and the 27-year-old John Smith think fleetingly about the possibility of romance, but quickly dismiss it.

The bad

The book romanticizes Pocahontas as a "princess" even though she wasn't one. It dwells a bit too much on the tribe's warfare, torture, and "superstitious" beliefs. It glosses over Pocahontas's transition from pagan captive to dutiful Christian wife.

The ugly

Watson occasionally uses stereotypical terms to describe the Indians. Since she wrote the book in 1916, it may be a legitimate case of her thinking what everyone thought because she didn't know any better. Some examples:

  • "squaw child"
  • "squaws" or "old squaws"
  • "papoose"
  • "medicine man or shaman" [they aren't the same thing]
  • "pale faces"
  • "savages"
  • "chanting in a rhythm never heard"
  • an "incantation" to summon their god

  • Conclusion

    Despite its flaws, this 1916 book does a better job of rendering an Indian culture than some books written almost a century later. Although it's fiction, it doesn't invent a romance between Pocahontas and Smith. Descendants of the Powhatan Indians may notice some historical inaccuracies, but none jumped out at me.

    Rob's rating:  7.5 of 10.

    For more on Pocahontas, see Pocahontas Bastardizes Real People.

    Below:  A romantic illustration from the original book. (Since I listened to the book on CD, I don't hold these illustrations against it.)


    Anonymous said...

    Flaws??? That book has so many holes in it it's not funny. Try "Pocahontas: The Other Side of History" which was written by Dr. Linwood Custalow, who is one of her descencents, and Angela Daniel if you want the real scoop.

    Deb K.

    Rob said...

    I've read a nonfiction biography of Pocahontas. And I've linked to a lot of information on my Pocahontas page. The Princess Pocahontas didn't blatantly contradict anything I recall reading about Pocahontas.

    I said Watson's rendition of the Indians' lives was persuasive. Persuasive isn't the same as historically accurate, you know. I don't know enough about the Powhatan Indians to judge its accuracy, but it didn't seem glaringly wrong about anything. For some reason, it felt "right" to me.

    I searched for reviews of The Princess Pocahontas that might indicate its flaws, but I didn't find any. Why don't you help us out and list the book's most obvious problems? That'll educate my readers and me too.

    Anonymous said...

    OK Bro, here's the first glaring error:

    --Custalow says that in Mattaponi society, children who had not had their puberty ceremony marking their entry into adult society would not have been allowed into adult ceremonies. Therefore, Custalow and Daniel aver that Pocahontas would not have been present when John Smith was undergoing his tribal initiation ritual--and QED, would not have thrown herself upon Smith's wretched self to prevent said killing. There's little proof other than Smith's diaries that she even knew the guy--Custalow and Daniel believe that Smith made the whole thing up to create some romanticized story to give himself some street cred back in Merry Olde England. And thus another popular myth is smashed.

    --You all did know that Pocahontas actually had two children, right? --not just the one by John Rolfe or whoever actually fathered the child. She was kidnapped and her first husband killed in an attempt to blackmail her father, Chief Powhatan.

    --Now I have not read the old book, so I don't know if she touched upon this, but Custalow is a physician, and after examining the historical record of her sudden illness and death, believes that she did not perish from tuberculosis or some other plague as the popular record states, but that the evidence points more to poisoning--whether intentional or accidental is unknown.

    Those are the only ones I cam recall offhand, I'll get back into the book and give you more later.

    Deb K.

    Rob said...

    The Princess Pocahontas takes the standard position that Pocahontas saved Smith from being executed. I'm familiar with the alternative claim that Smith was being initiated in some sort of mock execution. I have a whole section about it on my Pocahontas page. But that claim is still just a theory; it's far from being proven.

    I think Watson covered her bases by giving us the alleged execution and later having Smith initiated into the tribe as Powhatan's honorary son. For this initiation, Watson gave us a serious ceremony in which Pocahontas wasn't present. So again I'd say I don't see a glaring error. Whether she researched the issue or not, Watson gave us a reasonable version of what happened.

    I also know the claim that Smith exaggerated or made up things in his diary. Again, that's a theory, not a fact. Going with the conventional theory over the unconventional one doesn't make Watson wrong; it merely makes her conventional.

    I've heard Pocahontas was married to someone (Kocoum) before John Rolfe. I hadn't heard they had a child. How well documented are the marriage and child? Are they more than just oral legends?

    In any case, Watson glided over Pocahontas's teen years, as writers are wont to do. She omitted Kocoum, perhaps because she didn't know of him. But an omission isn't the same as an error, you know. If Watson omitted details that didn't contribute to her fictional narrative, that isn't exactly "wrong."

    I agree The Princess Pocahontas had "holes" in it. That's pretty much inevitable in a short biography--especially if it's fictional. But omitting a possible marriage or poisoning doesn't change Watson's rendition of the Indians' lives. I still think that was persuasive.

    Loulou said...

    Rob - you said you listened to the CD. I wondered if you checked it out of the Culver City (Julian Dixon) Library as I did? If so, are you the culprit who misplaced the 6th disc?! I still need to read the last chapter.......
    I am not a Native American historian, but I did find the book totally charming and insightful in ways I wasn't expecting. Thank you for clarifying the publication date as 1916. Something strange happens when an out of copyright book makes it to Kindle or Gutenberg - the publication date becomes the date they carry it, e.g. 2008! I tried Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but no-one had the original publication date.....until you!

    Rob said...

    I did borrow the CDs from the Culver City Library, but I returned them all.

    The librarians check the returns when they log them in, you know. If a CD was missing when I returned the book, they'd have noted it on my record. I'd have a huge and growing fine to pay by now.