Thursday, June 30, 2016

Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose

Blue Birds is a historical novel-in-verse that tells the story of the English who come to settle on Roanoke Island in Virginia in the 1500's. Written for nine to twelve year olds, the story is told from alternate points of view: twelve year old English settler Alis and thirteen year old Roanoke native, Kimi.

The novel begins in July 1587 with Alis, her family part of a group of 117 English settlers having arrived off the coast of North America after a three month journey. She's left behind her best friend, Joan, and the suffocating smells of rot and filth of London. The pilot of their ship, Simon Ferdinando has taken them to the island of Roanoke, miles from where they were supposed to land. Governor John White has done nothing about it, angering many of the settlers. As Alis, her heavily pregnant mother and father board the pinnace to travel from the ship to shore, she holds the wooden blue bird her Uncle Samuel carved and gave her years before. Alis expects her uncle to be on shore to greet them.

The English settlers are accompanied to the land which they have named Virginia in honour of the English Queen Elizabeth, by Manteo, a member of the Croatoan tribe. No one greets them, not even Alis's Uncle Samuel. After George Howe Sr. and Roger Bailie investigate, the Governor reveals that the settlement has been abandoned for some time and that they have found a building burned to the ground and the bones of a man. He decides that they will stay at the settlement through the fall and winter and in the spring sail to Chesapeake to establish the City of Ralegh. Arlis's uncle is no where to be found and eventually her father tells her that it's likely he has been killed by the Indians.

The arrival of the English is watched by Kimi a young girl belonging to the Roanoke tribe. She remembers the first white people who came, men only bearing gifts and tools and who took Wanchese and Manteo back to their country. The second group brought illness and drought, beheading Kimi's father, Wingina who was the weroance or leader of the Roanoke. The third group was killed by Wanchese. Kimi is surprised to see women and children with the English men. She quickly notices a girl her own age.

Kimi tells Wanchese about the women and children but he tells her it is not her concern. Kimi reveals that she misses her sister Alawa intensely. She knows the presence of women mean the English mean to stay and that they must force them to leave "before their roots take hold."

The English set about restoring the settlement which contains  a few cottages, animal pens, a barracks which was used by the English soldiers, a jail, a chapel, an armory and a forge surrounded by four earthen walls.  The few women, Mrs. Archard and Mrs. Dare who is the daughter of Governor White and who is also pregnant, want the Governor to sail to Chesapeake.

One day Kimi comes upon Alis who has stolen away from the settlement, in the forest. Seeing Kimi and the spiral markings on her bare arms, Alis flees in fear, dropping the bird carving of her Uncle Samuel which Kimi finds and considers to be Alis's montoac. George Dare, son of George Dare Sr. tells Alis he has seen the girl in the forest but Alis refuses to admit seeing her. Alis and Kimi meet again in the forest and this time they study each other before Kimi speaks angrily to Alis in a language she cannot understand. This causes Alis to run away a second time.

In the settlement Alis is assigned to care for Tommy and Ambrose, Mrs. Archard's children. Alis cannot trust anyone with her secret - meeting the girl in the forest. Meanwhile Kimi decides to bury Alis's montoac but later finds she needs to dig it up. After five days Alis manages to return to the forest and meets Kimi. Just as their friendship begins to grow  Mr. Howe is killed by the Roanoke Indians while digging clams on the shore. Can Alis and Kimi overcome the hatred and fear their people have for one another and develop the bonds of friendship?


Caroline Starr Rose has written a beautiful, touching story based on the tragedy that is known to history as the Lost Colony. The story centers around the disastrous attempts by the English to establish a colony on the east coast of America in the late 1500's. The land the English named Virginia was inhabited by Native Americans who at first found the English friendly. However, the cultural differences between the two races proved to be almost impossible to surmount. Murders by both sides created mistrust and hatred. Into this world stepped one hundred and seventeen colonists in 1587. The author, using the known details of this historical event has created a poignant story about two girls from two very different cultures meeting and forming a bond of friendship so strong that they both try to save the other from what appears to be the inevitable war between their peoples.

Starr Rose noted in her research that there were no girls listed in the names of the passengers from the 1587 voyage, so she decided to write about one girl who might have made the journey. That character, Alis Harvie is completely fictional as is the character of Kimi. Using these two characters, the author explores the events that are known from Governor John White who returned to England with Ferdinando and creates a plausible account of what the colonist's may have done after his departure.

Alis and Kimi are caught in the war between their two races. Both girls are deeply lonely and have lost someone dear to them. Alis's beloved Uncle Samuel was likely killed by the Croatoans while Kimi's much loved older sister Alawa was killed by the English soldier. Each has a gift from their lost beloved relative; Alis a carved blue bird and Kimi a piece of ribbon her sister was given by the English.

The author's free verse focuses on showing how each race, the Roanoke and the English misunderstand one another, leading to a bitter cycle of mistrust and murder. Eventually the two races can no longer coexist and the English must leave for Croatoan

At first Kimi feels that she has been tainted by Alis's presence.

I walk to the stream,
stoop to cleanse my feet,
wash off her strangeness
as an outsider does
before entering the village.

And she wonders why she feels like the stranger in her own land. But when they meet a third time Kimi feels Alis is daring and Alis believes Kimi to be beautiful. Alis admits "Something fascinating, fragile grows between us." They touch and Kimi realizes that Alis feels like any person would.

The two girls eventually talk in their own way about what happened before Alis and her family came to Kimi's land. Alis realizes,
The English,
my countrymen,
have brought upon the Roanoke
the same fear and horror 
we feel for them.

And Kimi realizes,
The English 
have wronged us.
But there is suffering
we have also waged.

Kimi knows Alis warned the Roanoke of the impending attack by the settlers.Kimi recognizes that the attack by the English need not destroy her budding friendship with Alis.

While weeding she notes the bean and the corn grow together.
I pat the soil around the bean
trace its growth from roots
to spindly stalk interwoven with the corn

These two plants thrive together
make my people strong.
There is no reason to let my anger
uproot something good.

This beautifully crafted novel is about friendship and openness to learn about those whose way of life may be very different. The author doesn't take sides and shows how both sides contributed to a situation that made life full of fear and intolerance.

Caroline Starr Rose has included a map of Roanoke Island 1587 and provides a Glossary of the now extinct dialect of the Croatoan and Roanoke peoples as well as a detailed Author's Note explaining the history of the attempted settlement of Roanoke Island by the English.

Book Details:

Blue Birds by Caroline Starr Rose
New York: G.P. Putnam's Son's   2015
393 pp. 

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