Book Review: Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony

Synopsis from Goodreads: November 1587. A report reaches London that Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition, which left England months before to land the first English settlers in America, has foundered. On Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina, a tragedy is unfolding. Something has gone very wrong, and the colony—115 men, women, and children, among them the first English child born in the New World, Virginia Dare—is in trouble. But there will be no rescue. Before help can reach them, all will vanish with barely a trace.

The Lost Colony is America’s oldest unsolved mystery. In this remarkable example of historical detective work, Lee Miller goes back to the original evidence and offers a fresh solution to the enduring legend. She establishes beyond doubt that the tragedy of the Lost Colony did not begin on the shores of Roanoke but within the walls of Westminster, in the inner circle of Queen Elizabeth’s government. As Miller detects, powerful men had reason to want Raleigh’s mission to fail. Furthermore, Miller shows what must have become of the settlers, left to face a hostile world that was itself suffering the upheavals of an alien invasion. Narrating a thrilling tale of court intrigue, spy rings, treachery, sabotage, Native American politics, and colonial power, Miller has finally shed light on a four-hundred-year-old unsolved mystery.

I grabbed this book thinking I would love it. Two history degrees focusing on early American history means I tend towards enjoying books exploring history on either side of the Revolutionary War time period, and the mystery of the lost colony of Roanoke has always been of interest to me. Sadly, this book really disappointed.

On the surface, what in theory should have been a great way to go about laying out the history of the Roanoke colony exploring what might have happened to the missing colonists was stellar: Approach the history as if it were a cold case for missing persons. Develop a hypothesis about what happened to them based on what clues we do have (albeit limited with a distance of 425+ years). Look for as many pieces as we know in the chain of events and then find clues that would support the hypothesis.

Instead, this wound up being a confusing jumble of Elizabeth court politics, confusing Native American tribal politics (with a lot of linguistic supposition tossed in for good measure), and a back-and-forth timeline to the narrative so that even though I was familiar with the basic history was confusing to me. On top of that, the author opted for a very odd writing style. She chose to incorporate phrases or paragraphs of existing source text into her own writing (italicizing those words and sections to stand out from the rest of the text) that broke up an already oddly choppy writing style. As in. Lots of incomplete sentences. Which made reading. Extremely difficult. (One other review likened this to listening to William Shatner read his Star Trek lines and yes! That is SPOT ON.)

Is is possible that the scenario the author puts forward – that the colonists who had little food and were essentially stranded on a barrier island were taken in my various tribes on the coast or in the interior, either friends or foes – a truth? Absolutely. Did she prove this with any sort of data beyond “This might have happened”? No. Add to that the badly written and overly sensationally presented information and I have little to recommend for this book. Hard core early American colonial history nerds might find it a passable read just as food for thought, but I can’t imagine it appealing to a wider, more general audience in any way.

Overall rating: 2/5 stars.

This is book 13/20 in my 20 Books of Summer Challenge and book 1/2 for the August Completely Melanie TBR challenge.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony

  1. This is one of those subjects that crops up so frequently in popular culture that it’s hard to remember I actually know very little about it as an historical event. I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like this as when I saw the title I thought it would probably end up on my reading list. I do appreciate the Star Trek reference though, it’s a great way to explain the issue!

    1. I know! I was really sad this wasn’t a better book. I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be fun and engaging and be able to recommend it as a great read. 😦 (The writing. Was. SO bad. Even if the book itself had merit and was a less confusing read, the writing would have been tough to get through.)

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