Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Gentleman Poet by Kathryn Johnson

Review by Sheila R. Lamb

Kathryn Johnson weaves historical fiction, romance, and mystery into an intriguing novel that parallels William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Elizabeth Persons is on her way to the foundling colony of Virginia in 1609 when a shipwreck leaves her, and the other 150 passengers, stranded on the shores of Bermuda.As a servant to the cantankerous Mistress Horton, Elizabeth keeps her true religion, for which her father was executed, a secret. She befriends the ships’ mysterious historian, William Strachey, who plays matchmaker between Elizabeth and the ship’s cook, Thomas Powell.

Temperamental Strachey fills the role of a father-figure for Elizabeth as the shipwrecked passengers attempt to rebuild their lives on the desolate islands.  Elizabeth soon discovers her new acquaintance has secrets similar to her own, and the two are bound together in their struggle against Catholic persecution they faced in England. When Strachey writes a play for the marooned colonist’s entertainment – and casts Elizabeth as Miranda - he risks discovery of his true identity.

Johnson deftly uses Elizabeth’s perspective to portray conflicts between the governor, captain, and unruly sailors, as the fledgling community takes shape. Elizabeth’s new role as a chef, bestowed upon her when Powell falls ill, gives her the opportunity to observe the entire group as she scouts the island to collect herbs and roots for her delectable feasts. In a unique visual twist to the text, Johnson includes seventeenth century styled recipes for island finds such as Baygrape Jelly and Turtle Soup.

Historically, the Sea Venture was the third supply ship bound for Jamestown in 1609 which ran aground in the Bermudas.  The novel accurately incorporates figures such Captain Newport and Governor Gates. Thomas Powell and Elizabeth Persons are also recorded on the ships manifest, as well as Will Strachey, who wrote an account of the adventure.  As Johnson indicates in her author’s note, Shakespeare seems to be notably missing from England during this time. Thus, she successfully transforms Strachey into Shakespeare and the Gentleman Poet sets a marvelous stage for The Tempest