One of my coworkers, in a level of idiocy I believe to be unparalleled in the history of our workplace, recently received a jaw-droppingly racist anti-Obama screed in her inbox. Instead of deleting the comment, or, at most, responding to the sender with a "How dare you?" her instinct was instead to forward it without comment to everyone in our department, including all the managers, supervisors, and even the department head.
Predictably, there was the explosion of shock and anger that bursts from individuals who were quietly working one moment, then reading a raging torrent of hatred towards atheists, blacks, and Muslims the next. (In case you're curious, the full text of the email is here.) Everyone found something in the letter to be offended by, and the department was in an uproar. Shockingly, she was not fired for this astonishing error in judgment, and was ordered only to write another department wide email, this second one sent to apologize for the first.
"I just sent that email to show everyone what people were saying about him," she wrote. "Everyone who knows me knows I'm an open-minded person, and I don't think those things."
Okay, then. Both her actions and her excuse were inexplicable, and the only moment worth redeeming from the entire debacle was a conversation I had about it with an African-American coworker, who expressed gratitude that at least she lived in an era where such sentiments were met with strong opposition from the majority. "But," she said, "I'm well aware that this is a racial world. Now instead of just hating blacks, it seems whites hate everybody."
"What I can't believe," I said, "is that we seem to have learned nothing from the tragedy of slavery and the terrible consequences of dehumanizing other human beings. We seem to have learned absolutely nothing from Jim Crow - we're starting up the rhetoric and stirring up the negative sentiment all over again, just now with Muslims. This persistent refusal to empathize with Others is what causes history to repeat itself in countless horrible ways."
In Jamestown, Matthew Sharpe's post-Apocalyptic (Sharpe prefers the term "post-annihilation," because "apocalyptic" implies a revelation, and he does not think anything like that has occurred to his characters prior to the novel's beginning.) version of the original nightmare of the Jamestown settlers, portrays humanity at its bleakest and basest, as the characters ignore the lessons of history, abandoning the opportunity to save each other by working together to build a better world, choosing instead to scheme, betray, and oppress.
Set in the near future, civilization has suffered a cataclysmic disaster, leaving the water filled with hydrochloric acid, the ozone layer destroyed, the food poisoned, and the survivors dirty, tired, and in a constant haze of misery. A heavily-armored vehicle trundles from the ruin of Manhattan down I-95 by the flickering light from the burning remains of the Chrysler Building. Filled with men who share the names of the original Jamestown settlers, they drive toward Virginia to seek out oil and exploit the people who live there.
After days of wretched journeying spent infighting, with too little food and water and too many power struggles, the men find themselves surrounded by a tribe of alarming young men wielding arrows, with severed hands woven into their long black hair and skin reddened by pigmented sunblock. They attempt to form a working relationship with the tribe's leader, Chief Powhatan, and his consigliere, Sidney Feingold. Relations break down due to dishonesty on both sides. The settlers temporarily retreat and attempt to settle down in the swamps by creating a town of their own, Jamestown, so named after James Ratcliffe, CEO of Manhattan and the father of their nepotism-appointed leader, John. Ill-equipped to sustain themselves in such a hostile climate, the settlers, already sick and weak from their long journey, begin to die.
The Pocahantas-John Rolfe romance springs up, and the teenage princess naively does her best to assist the settlers and repair relations between her townspeople and her boyfriend's group.
Using the blackest of humor, Sharpe manages to tell an entirely new story without betraying the bloody details of the old. Like the original legend, Jamestown is a tale of ghastly violence with a dainty thread of love woven throughout. Unlike the original, Sharpe manages to end the novel with such a spectacular example of Manifest Destiny that it makes the reader realize that as good as the novel was, it's in fact even better, and the best idea would be to go back and read it again, just to catch all the details missed during the first go-round.
by Matthew Sharpe
2007 by Soft Skull Press
Paperback, 322 pp
Tuesday, January 15, 2008