The New World – Andrew Motion – Book Review – By Helen O’Leary
Andrew Motion is a former British Poet Laureate so it is with interest I read his foray into fiction writing. The New World picks up the threads of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and transports the adventure from sea to the newly settled lands of Texas in the early 1800s. Jim, the main character, is the son of Jim Hawkins (who will be familiar to aficionados of Treasure Island). He is washed ashore with Natty the daughter of Long John Silver when their ship is wreaked. The pair barely have the seaweed picked from their hair when a band of native Indians capture them.
These Indians are not a friendly bunch and Jim and Natty are imprisoned and half starved for many months. Eventually they make their escape and strike off across the plains of Texas and up the Mississippi river, a return to England being their ultimate destination. Unfortunately by impulsively stealing a precious necklace before they flee their captors they are relentlessly pursed by the Indians. Black Cloud, the Indian Chief, is a constant and ominous presence for the remainder of their escapades.
This newly penned story has echoes of an older swash-buckling classic adventure tale, of a kind long since gone out of fashion. At times it’s almost childlike in its simplicity; Natty and Jim simply want to get home while the evil Black Cloud stands in their way.
But it is also has layers where Andrew Motion explores the complex relationship between the native Indians and new settlers. Initial impressions of the Indians as a fearsome and savage lot are short-lived as we discover the European pioneers to be brutally intent on claiming territory and disposing of the natives. The novel laments the burying of an ancient civilization to accommodate a greedy land grab. Natty and Jim are treated with indifference and scorn when wearing Indian clothes, revealing their Englishness immediately garners help and assistance. And even though the villain is an Indian chief, the behavior of Jim and Natty at the final showdown with Black Cloud isn’t nearly as heroic and laudable as you’d expect.
Motion doesn’t appear to set out to surpass Robert Louis Stevenson but to pay homage. For a poet noted for his lyricism the prose is surprisingly plain, one can only presume that this is in deference to the style of Stevenson. As a narrative of the early settlement of Texas The New World can’t quite compare to the The Son by Phillip Meyer, and except for its beginnings the link to Treasure Island is fairly tenuous.
Ultimately I was undecided if the simplicity of the book was a failing or a triumph however if it is adventure you’re after you’ll probably enjoy this.