The Secret Token by Andrew Lawler

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The sheer unlikeliness of Andrew Lawler's previous book, Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird That Powers Civilization, threw into sharp relief the author's writing ability; he carried the whole thing off so smartly and engagingly that he made a book about chickens a wholesale success. In light of the fact that Lawler has been freelancing newspaper and magazine articles for many, many venues for a long time, this is probably not surprising; he's long since learned how to turn any subject into an interesting reading experience. Readers who missed all those articles and only discovered Lawler through Why Did the Chicken Cross the World might naturally have wondered what amazing things this author could do if he turned his skills to a subject with a bit more inherent dramatic potential than the international poultry industry.

Lawler's newest is just such a book. The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke focuses not just on the very sturdy evergreen mystery the lost colony of Roanoke (which, as he points out, historians and archeologists have for years been patiently pointing out was not actually “lost”) but also on the origin and growth of the legend itself.

The story was once a familiar part of any elementary-school American history education: in 1587, an English expedition of 115 men, women, and children arrived at Roanoke Island off the North Carolina coast with the intention of establishing the first English colony in the New World. But when a re-supply mission reached the colony three years later, they found it deserted – even the houses and barricades were gone. The only clue was the “secret token” of Lawler's title, carved into a tree at the settlement site. Nearly a century later, when a beaver trader made his way to the island, a native calling himself “the emperor of Roanoke” offered to show the man “the ruins of Sir Walter Raleigh's fort.”

The New World expedition had been the darling project of Raleigh, who features prominently in Lawler's book. Indeed, The Secret Token is even stronger in its extensive sections back in Elizabethan England than it is on the shores of the Chesapeake; readers are taken on a fascinating, readable inquiry into the allure – not just financial but also imaginative – that the New World had the merchants, privateers, speculators, and ordinary citizens of the Old. All this careful grounding and broadening makes Lawler's the best account of Roanoke to appear in many years.

“Geography colluded with the final passing of the Roanoke generation to consign the fate of the vanished settlers to oblivion – at least among Europeans,” Lawler writes. “Sailors steered clear of the treacherous shoals of the Outer Banks, considered the most dangerous waters south of Nova Scotia.”  Likewise the “mystery” of the disappearance of the Roanoke colony was accidentally deepened by the prevailing cultural attitudes that prevailed for centuries after the event – cultural attitudes that avoided the obvious solution to the mystery: that the colonists, faced with fierce weather, grudging soil, and the threat of disease and starvation, willingly assimilated themselves into Native populations near and far – no mysterious disappearance, just a failed colony desperate to scatter and survive.

Of course The Secret Token won't stop or even stall the outlandish speculation about Roanoke's fate (space aliens have, inevitably, been dragged into the whole thing many times), but readers who prefer the facts need look no further.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is