Reading about home

I suppose I live in Virginia now, huh? That’s not entirely why these are my two most recent reads, but it maybe had at least a small influence. At any rate, it was fun to see Fredericksburg, Stafford County, the Rappahannock River, and Patawomeck Indians make appearances.

Horn’s book wasn’t earth-shattering, but it is a clear account of the Roanoke ventures–especially their larger context, including events in England that distracted Ralegh and undermined ongoing support of the North American enterprise. I also appreciate his cautious examination of the various rumors and reports about the fate of the colonists in the decades that followed–and I think he offers a measured, plausible explanation for what happened to them.

Last fall’s U.S. Environmental History class included a series of student presentations based on book-length monographs as a way of broadening topics beyond what we read together, and one of those books was Rice’s. It seemed like a nice complement to the books on colonial New England and the lower Mississippi Valley; it was centered on a watershed, a bioregional frame we discussed; and it was meant to appeal to anybody who wanted to read some more about local environmental history. Well, it wasn’t a big hit with the students who worked with it, so I wanted to give it a more thorough read, and sure enough, I kind of agree with my students’ take on it. They thought the environmental component was incomplete–that he had a basic idea, but didn’t fully work out the implications, and didn’t stay focused on the environmental thread throughout the book. I’m less harsh in my evaluation than they were privately, but I understand their concern that the book frequently strays from its stated focus on environmental factors. Rice definitely establishes an environmental formulation–that there was a north-south division that established prior to the colonial era that continued to be of significance as Europeans arrived, and that significant environmental differences marked the development of the coastal plain, inner plain, and interior–and puts together a nice synthesis of colonial settlement throughout the Potomac watershed, the environmental components don’t develop as much. In particular, we don’t get a very dynamic environment, nor do we get one that is in constant dialogue with its human inhabitants (I think he does a better job with this in the chapters devoted to pre-contact Native American inhabitants than those considering the colonial era). For instance, while he spends a decent amount of time discussing conflicts between various peoples claiming sovereignties over lands, there is a missed opportunity to think more extensively about the environmental logics of those claimed territories. Anyway, it’s undoubtedly a book with value, but also a book that leaves plenty of room for further development.

Next up: reading myself further away from home, with the Shawnee and then possibly the Creek, New England Puritans, New Orleans, Medieval Europe, or a slave ship in the Atlantic.

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