In grade school, most of us learned the story of English explorer Captain John Smith and his relationship with Algonquian princess Pocahontas. But what about the details surrounding the English explorations in the New World and the establishment of the Jamestown Colony in the early 17th century?
In this new audiobook of The Weight of Smoke (McPherson & Company), author George Robert Minkoff—noted antiquarian, rare book dealer, and playwright—provides a history lesson in first person, as if we are hearing the diary of John Smith during eighteen months after the birth of Jamestown.
This fictional diary is replete with detailed prose and lyrical metaphors, the narrative voice written with a verbose “Elizabethan authenticity.” The resonant British accent of actor and book narrator Nigel Gore (Last Knights, Titus Andronicus and Brotherhood) in the audiobook almost convinces us that Captain Smith himself is describing his amazement at the New World, its surprising complexities, and the English dream of what could be.
It is May 1607. Three English vessels land in Virginia to establish the Jamestown Colony. Unlike the Spanish, who made expeditions to the Americas to procure gold and slaves, the English came to the New World to build a nation, considering the indigenous people their allies instead of captives.
Soon after their arrival, the group—made up of English explorers and wealthy, entitled gentlemen—negotiate with Chief Powhatan, leader of the Algonquian-speaking tribes in Virginia. Powhatan will guide them through the wilderness if the English will fight against the Algonquian’s enemies.
At a time when tobacco is in vogue in Europe, it is also considered a healing herb to treat wounds and cure diseases. Along with gold and human chattel, it is a commodity now coveted by Europe. The novel includes a detailed history of how the Europeans discovered the tobacco plant in the Americas and made it into a coveted commodity.
“When Sir Walter Raleigh wagered Queen Elizabeth that he could know the weight of smoke, the queen laughed. Raleigh weighed the tobacco on a balance, then tapped it into the bowl of his pipe, lit the weed to enjoy the smoke. The pipe finished, Raleigh weighed the remaining ash. The loss of weight, the weight of smoke.”
Gore’s narration of stories told by the salty, aged mariner Jonas Profit sitting around the campfire transports listeners not only on the journey of John Smith landing in America and founding Jamestown Colony, but also into the prior history of the European occupation of the New World—the discoveries of Columbus, the plundering of the land and indigenous people by the Spanish Armada, and details from the explorations of Sir Francis Drake.
“We had come as England, and England was not another Spain. Sweetly we had brought our salvation to these shores. Spain had come to the New World to find slaves and easy wealth. We had come to build a single nation from the nations. The enslaved would be our allies.”
But amid their hope to build a new nation, Smith and the other English explorers would soon come to understand their lofty goals would not be easy to accomplish, as they’d first imagined. Instead of building a European paradise, they would struggle to survive.
“As children with their blocks, so are men in their minds with ideas. To do in a wilderness, among a people whose language we cannot yet speak, what was never done in England, is to project an image of earthly heaven onto a tangle of weeds.”
The Weight of Smoke is a saga of British colonization and a testament to the early seventeenth-century world: the strict social caste system in Europe, the science of alchemy, and the reverence of the tobacco leaf.
For those who love detailed historical novels written in the flavor of the times and narrated as though we almost feel part of the expedition, consider this audiobook.
The Weight of Smoke audiobook is now available for purchase.
About George Robert Minkoff
George Robert Minkoff was raised on Long Island. He graduated from Clark University in 1965. For four decades he has been a noted antiquarian and rare book dealer living in the Berkshires of Massachusetts and New York City. Mr. Minkoff began writing plays in the late 1960s, but a decade later the publisher of Putnam, William Targ, urged him instead to write novels. Inspired by one of his teen-aged sons, the trilogy “In the Land of Whispers” began as a one-act play to dramatize the absurdity between the reach of the first English settlers and their grasp, but as Minkoff dealt with the historical materials he realized there was a far greater story to be told… a story of intertwined illusions: alchemy (the reigning science), tobacco (presumed a miracle drug), and the Elizabethan mind.