The novel follows the life of a young man, John Crowe, from the Cambridgeshire fens to Powhatan’s Virginia. It begins in 1619, at a time of social unrest with the draining of the fens. When Crowe falls foul of the law, he leaves home with a group of Romani he’s known since childhood, making his way to London, its underworld and petty crime. When his companion is murdered, he embarks for Virginia as an indentured servant, traveling on the George, the same ship carrying the new governor, Sir George Yeardley. After a rough and eventful crossing, he arrives at Jamestown where he works for an English settler. At this man’s death, Crowe is sent upstream to make pitch and tar. Here he falls in with two Poles who operate a gun-running operation. Crowe is sent on an errand which takes him among the Powhatan, gradually becoming involved in their lives. As events move to a climax, Crowe is inducted into the huskanaw, a secret, dangerous ceremony for young men. The novel gathers momentum as March 1622 approaches, when the Powhatan rise up under Opechancanough, an event in which Crowe takes part.
“Even a time machine could not transport us as convincingly into the tumultuous early decades of 17th-century England and its struggling colony in Virginia as this brilliant novel does. It carries us into the fenlands where men walk on stilts, on the road with Romani, into the criminal underworld of London, aboard ship bound for America, into the raw Jamestown settlement and, most vividly of all, into an indigenous tribe threatened by these foreign invaders. The novel is an extraordinary fusion of history, lyricism, narrative, language specific to places and time, and sympathetic imagination. The way it reveals the condition of homeless vagabonds, shipboard sufferers, fearful settlers, threatened native people—and, through it all, the evolving consciousness of the protagonist, John Crowe—is deeply moving. In HUSKANAW, Brian Swann deploys all his gifts—as poet, translator, linguist, and scholar of Native American cultures—to create a gripping, masterful work of art.”
—Scott R. Sanders
“Brian Swann’s gorgeous and important HUSKANAW takes its young narrator-seeker on a spiral route from the gorgeous charm of a consumptive girl in 17th-century English fen country, who helps him with his Latin and tries to get him to unbutton, to a rebellious involvement in labor unrest, to the New World territory of Opechancanough and the circle of an elusive, seductive Powhatan woman who teaches him Algonquian and sees that the adoptee is initiated in the excruciating huskanaw ceremony. But this summary says nothing crucial about Swann’s magical book, and runs counter to the principles of its almost literally magical language. It is our journey, through the minds and actions of mutual aliens—almost wholly lacking modern customs of consciousness like introspection, self-identity, consistency, rationalization, regret—in a vessel of language alternately beautiful and stripped to simple declarative sentences of action. Our narrator has desires, and something like a conscience, but what overrides the novelistic potential in these is the present moment and its small, total, un-abstract demands on his and our senses, including senses of loyalty, disgust, bewilderment, fascination, panic. This is what it’s like to make one’s way in a New World. This is what it takes to recognize human ways and beings across the river of absolute strangeness, and what love is like on such a river. Be prepared.
—Mary Baine Campbell
by Brian Swann
$22.95, paperback, 338pp