About the book:
A group of "settlers" (more like survivors) arrive in Virginia from the ravished island of Manhattan, intending to establish an outpost, find oil, and exploit the Indians controlling the area. But nothing goes quite as planned (one settler, for instance, keeps losing body parts). At the heart of the story is Pocahontas, who speaks Valley Girl, Ebonics, Old English, and Algonquin—sometimes all in the same sentence. And she pursues a heated romance with settler Johnny Rolfe via text messaging, instant messaging, and, ultimately, telepathy.
Deadly serious and seriously funny, Matthew Sharpe’s fictional retelling of one of America’s original myths is a history of violence, a cross-cultural love story, and a tragicomic commentary on America’s past and present.
About the author:
MATTHEW SHARPE is the author of the novels The Sleeping Father and Nothing Is Terrible, as well as the short-story collection Stories from the Tube. He teaches creative writing at Wesleyan University. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Zoetrope, BOMB, McSweeney’s, American Letters & Commentary, Southwest Review, and Teachers & Writers. He lives in New York City.
This discussion guide is also available in PDF format (115 KB)
1. Compare Jamestown to other postapocalyptic novels, films, or TV shows. How does Sharpe use the conventions of this genre to tell his story, and in what ways does he depart from those conventions?
2. How much did you know about Jamestown and Pocahontas before you read this novel? How did your familiarity with the basic story inform your reading of the novel, and vice versa? Compare Sharpe’s version of the story with others—for example, the Disney film Pocahontas or the version that you were taught in history class. How does Sharpe subvert or comment on these versions, for example in the "recruiting video" that the Manhattan Company films in Central Park? Discuss Sidney Feingold’s musing, "A gentler time: a constant myth since man began to prey upon the earth; nostalgia is optimism in reverse chronology" (page 94). How does this quote relate to the various historical and fictional Jamestowns with which you are familiar?
3. Discuss the different voices in which Pocahontas speaks, from "teenybopper" shorthand reminiscent of MySpace postings to an exaggerated African American dialect. Why does Sharpe use these different voices? Are the shifts in voice prompted by external events? Is there a pattern to them? Do the different voices keep you from seeing Pocahontas as a unified character, or do they combine to create one?
4. Who are the "Indians"? Albert refers to "the ancient folkways we’ve tried to adopt from people whose bloodline we do not continue but whose folkways we try to, though we know them only in fragments and some of them make no sense in the present" (page 151). Why do you think the "Indians" have done this? Why would survivors of an apocalyptic event adopt the culture of Native Americans?
5. What is the significance of the messages that Pocahontas and Johnny send out on their wireless devices early in the novel? Compare the various ways that each character addresses these notes (for example, "Hello, in a sense," "Dear air," and "To the one who I hope receives, this, though I’m not sending it"). What is the difference between composing electronic messages that no one is likely to receive and keeping a diary? What changes when Pocahontas and Johnny start corresponding with each other by instant message and e-mail, and finally by telepathy? What is the difference between writing and thinking?
6. Communication is unreliable in this novel. Discuss the different kinds of miscommunication that occur. For example, why are names mispronounced so often ("Sit-Knee Find Gold," "Poke a Huntress"), and why do the Indians pretend not to understand English? Why does Sharpe make miscommunication such a central theme?
7. Jamestown is not a conventionally realistic novel; it often seems cartoonish or staged. But in what ways is it realistic? Is it psychologically accurate or truthful? Did it affect you differently than a more "realistic" novel with the same premise might have?
8. Describe the various kinds of humor Sharpe uses in the novel. Which parts did you find funniest, and why? Are the jokes meant to be funny? How might Jamestown have been different without these comic elements? For example, how would the ubiquitous violence have been different if there had been less of a slapstick element to it?
9. Discuss the character Sidney Feingold. How does he fit into the Indian culture? What is the significance of the fact that he is the only "Indian" with an entirely "American" name and is a Jewish psychologist? Discuss the scenes in which Sidney Feingold administers Rorschach tests to the New Yorkers. What do the tests reveal about the subjects, and about Sidney? Are they useful to the Indians? Why do you think Sharpe includes these scenes?
10. In his note to the reader, Matthew Sharpe describes Jamestown as an "ahistorical fantasia on a real event" (page 325). What does this mean? How is this novel ahistorical? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines fantasia as "a work (as a poem or play) in which the author”s fancy roves unrestricted" or "something possessing grotesque, bizarre, or unreal qualities." How do these definitions apply to Jamestown?
11. Jamestown is filled with references to literature and pop culture, from hip-hop songs to works by Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett. Were you able to identify any of these references as you were reading? Why do you think Sharpe included them? How do they relate to the fact that the novel as a whole is a kind of "cover version" of the history of the Jamestown settlement? Do you think that any of the characters are consciously making the references?
12. One of the recurring literary references in the novel is to Shakespeare’s King Lear. For example, the situation and some of the specific dialogue in the final scene between Pocahontas and Powhatan on pages 262 –264 echo Act 4, Scene 7 of the play, where Lear is reunited with Cordelia, the faithful daughter whom he has disowned because she refused to flatter him. Read these two scenes together, compare them, and discuss them in the context of question 11.
13. What role does love play in this novel? How are sex and love related here? Why do Pocahontas and Johnny fall in love? Discuss Rolfe’s assertion that love can be "used as an expedient to link one family to another, one town to another, one corporation to another, and then it follows not the paths of thought and flesh but those of trade and law, and is meant to replace but really just precedes and facilitates the theft, murder and rape of one swarm of men by another that goes by the name of history" (page 184). Does this happen with the love between Johnny and Pocahontas?
14. What happens to John Martin over the course of the novel? How do his injuries change him? Rolfe says that Martin “was not just a strong argument but the very embodiment of maximizing diminished resources with hardly a thought to the imminence of their exhaustion” (page 289). How does this quote relate to Martin’s coup? Why is he the only one who is able to take over and unite Brooklyn and Manhattan?