The Literary Hill

In “The Secret Token,” a local author investigates the mysterious fate of the first English colonists in America in 1587. Author photo by R. Plaster

Looking for Virginia Dare
Twenty years before Jamestown and more than three decades prior to Plymouth, there was the Roanoke Colony. In 1587, a group of Elizabethan colonists landed on an island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Attempts to resupply them failed and all contact with the group was lost.

In his thought-provoking new book, “The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke,” Andrew Lawler researches what scant evidence remains, including a cryptic carving on a tree and a famously controversial engraved stone, and he interviews dozens of archaeologists, historians, curators, and impassioned amateurs. In the end, he’s left with little but theories. Did the colonists perish? Decamp? Get assimilated into Native American culture? We may never know.

Lawler decides that the more interesting story may be why their fate remains an obsession. Little attention was paid to the Roanoke Colony until the 1830s when, in response to a rising populist movement fueled by fears of immigrants and slave uprisings, the mythology of Virginia Dare was created.

The first English child born in the Americas, Dare most likely perished as an infant, but 19th-century authors resurrected her as a plucky blonde beauty who tamed the savage wilderness. “Memorializing Virginia Dare was not simply a patriotic way to mark the nation’s founding,” Lawler writes, but it was also “part of a concerted effort to ensure whites remained in firm control.” The myth persists even today as white supremacists evoke her image as a symbol of racial purity.

In a larger sense, Lawler concludes, the Roanoke Colony may be a kind of Rorschach test, revealing more about us and “what it means to be American” than it will ever tell us about the lost colonists. This, he writes, may be “the real secret token they left behind.”

Andrew Lawler is the author of “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?,” a contributing writer for Science, a contributing editor for Archaeology, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Slate.

William Kurtz has compiled and edited the wartime correspondence of his cousin, John Burnham Shaw, in “Letters from a Soldier.”

Everyday Valor
In 1996, John Burnham Shaw began transcribing the letters he wrote home from the Army during World War II. He hoped that his grandchildren “will read then someday, and get a clearer picture of their grandfather when he was their age, warts and all.” Now, thanks to the efforts of his cousin and editor, William S. Kurtz, we can all read about what Kurtz calls the “everyday” life of an ordinary man who made extraordinary sacrifices.

“Letters from a Soldier” begins in 1943 with Shaw’s basic training in Louisiana, where despite mud, chigger bites, poison ivy, heat, long lines, and little sleep, his spirits remain high. Once overseas, he’s cold and constantly hungry—and grateful for the warm clothes and food that his father, stepmother, and sister send him—but he’s happy to be near the action and eager to do his part.

His tone changes after his first taste of combat, which comes at Christmastime of 1944 in the infamous Battle of the Bulge. Shaw is wounded—and the soldiers on either side of him are killed. As he lies in the hospital recuperating, he writes that he “die[s] a little” at the thought of having to return to the front. “I’m afraid of how I’ll react under fire now that I’ve seen and felt it. I know what it is… to see friends killed.”

Keeping “a plate of steel around my emotions,” he returns to the fighting in 1945 as part of the war’s final push. When Germany surrenders in May, his relief is tempered by an understandable weariness. “I’d love to know that for the rest of my life I would fire no more shots, ever.” The letters end later that year as he sails home in time for Christmas. “I’ll be seeing you in a couple of weeks, I hope, I hope, I hope!” he writes. “Love to you all. John.”

John Burnham Shaw went on to earn his PhD from Johns Hopkins University and taught English literature until his retirement in 1988. He died in 2004. Kurtz notes that “on the 50th anniversary of Christmas 1944, he dug a foxhole in his backyard in Ohio, staying there until the hour his two comrades were killed at his side.”

Thanks to Kurtz’s efforts, including his addition of supplemental military records, eyewitness accounts, maps, and photographs, “Letters from a Solider” will be an invaluable resource to historians—and a loving and fitting tribute to a member of the Greatest Generation.

Literary Hill News
Kudos to Hill writer Richard Agemo, who has had a sci-fi story published in Silver Blade Magazine. In “Change of Light,” an “envirotographer” travels to Japan on the 75th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster to shoot background for an 8-D recreation, but experiences his own catastrophe when he falls in love with a cyborg.

As you’ve probably heard by now, Jim Toole is ending his 24-year run as owner and manager of Capitol Hill Books. But never fear: he’s sold the iconic bookstore to a consortium of booklovers who will continue to run it, although they say they may tidy it up a bit to make room for readings and book clubs. We hope Jim sticks around, though, because Capitol Hill Books—and Capitol Hill—wouldn’t be the same without him.

On the Hill in September
East City Bookshop
has a schedule of book clubs and readings too full for listing here.

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s O.B. Hardison Poetry Season opens with a reading by Linda Pastan, Marilyn Chin, and Ellen Bass, Sept. 17, 7:30 p.m. or 202-544-7077.

The Hill Center hosts Talk of the Hill with Bill Press featuring former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (“Fascism: A Warning”), Sept. 10, 7 p.m., and journalist Mark Leibovich (“Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times”), Sept. 17, 7 p.m. Call 202-549-4172 or register online at