Tidewater, by Libbie Hawker: A Book Review

Back in June, I took a road trip to Maryland with some friends to attend a book conference. While I was geeking out about meeting some of my favorite authors, I made the mandatory pitstop at the pop-up book store to grab a few new volumes (as if my overflowing bookshelves could hold anything more!). I came across Tidewater, and after having added it to my Amazon wish list months ago, I finally decided to snap it up. As it turns out, I was able to get Libbie Hawker to autograph it!

Well, I brought it home and it sat on my bookshelf till November. I picked it up thinking it was an appropriate time to dive in. What could be better than reading a story about Native Americans when Thanksgiving was just around the corner? I was really hoping it would turn out well. Sometimes you just pick up a book with a fantastic synopsis and it leaves you feeling either flat or disillusioned. I am happy to report that this book was an absolutely riveting read!

I have always been fascinated by Pocahontas. Yes, I adore the Disney movie for the nostalgia it provides. And yes, I also acknowledge that it is incredibly inaccurate. When an idea or a person captures your imagination in childhood, however, it becomes a huge part of your life and your memories. Native American tribes have always held an allure for me. From my Native American diorama class project, to the time I purchased an encyclopedia of all the tribes in the US, to my biographical report on Pocahontas in 4th grade, I hold a deep respect for the native peoples of this land, and a horror for all the half-hearted promises that were made to them by the Americans of past generations.

Tidewater is a fascinating and highly detailed depiction of the real woman who was Pocahontas. The chapters fluctuate between the perspectives of Pocahontas, John Smith, and Opecancanough (Pocahontas’s uncle). The book is further divided into 4 sections based on different names that Pocahontas received during her lifetime. It was a common custom among the Powhatans to change one’s name at a significant moment in life. Her first name was Amonute (am-oh-NOO-tee), a childhood name. Pocahontas was more of a nickname, meaning, “mischief.” The third name was Matoaka (mah’-toh-AH-ka), and I believe this was the name she chose once she fully came into her womanhood. She was finally called Rebecca Rolfe, after her marriage to John Rolfe. There is a nifty glossary/pronunciation guide at the back of the book to assist with all this.

Hawker does an excellent job of helping the reader to understand that Pocahontas could potentially have had her own ambitions to become a female chief. Learning the white man’s ways and acting as a go-between fueled her desire to achieve that dream, at least in this book. John Smith is nowhere near Pocahontas in age, and he is a much rougher and more cynical character than what is portrayed in the Disney film. These two unlikely people bonded over their shared position as low members of their society. Pocahontas was only one child out of the many who had been birthed by Powhatan’s wives/concubines. Social standing was based purely on the bloodline of one’s mother, and her mother was of a very low class. The only reason Pocahontas was such a favorite with her father was due to her ability to make witty remarks, pull pranks, and supply him with a laugh in the midst of his duties and cares. As her character grows and develops throughout the novel, she moves from being a bratty, ambitious pre-teen who tries to carve out her own destiny by force, to a contented new bride willing to live a quiet life amongst the traditions and community of her people, to a woman to channels that inner fire into a way to create peace between the whites and her people. She becomes quite the unconventional ambassador, and learns that she has to adopt a spirit of sacrifice in order to make any progress.

There is so much I could delve into regarding this novel, but I think there must be a level of surprise in order to better appreciate this woman and all she achieved. Libbie Hawker includes a wonderful author’s note, as well as many books and resources that she used to help bring this story to life. I appreciate that she was as historically accurate as she could have been, while filling in the gaps with the weavings of her own imagination. When she creates a twist on purpose, she tells the reader, and I think that is the most honest way to write historical fiction.

I am quite proud to have this on my bookshelf, and I think it is a fair and balanced portrait of the relationship between the Native Americans and the early colonists. A must read for those who would like to get lost in a gripping, yet mostly true story, as well as for those who hunger for a little history!

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