[19 July 2006]
The premise of The Lost Colony series, of which The Snodgrass Conspiracy is the first chapter, is that in 19th century America there is an island hidden away from the world. And on that base level, The Lost Colony commands further investigation.
When you delve into Grady Klein’s work, you find a world on this mystery island that is a microcosm of America in the 19th century: people obsessed with money and land, freedom-loving and -defending citizens, free blacks encountering the scourge of slavery, immigrants, xenophobia, distrust, and carpet-bagging, among other issues. When a stranger stumbles onto the island quite accidentally—the first lines of dialogue in the book are his as he exclaims, “Where the @!$* am I?”—his presence stirs up the islanders to wonder what his appearance means for the island, the people, its way of life, and its secrets.
It doesn’t help that his reason for being lost on the island is the promotion of a slave auction. This is none too pleasing for citizens like Dr. Pepe Wong, the island “pharmacist” and purveyor of potions and other magical elixirs and foods, and Patricia, a black woman who sees the “Man in Green”, Edweard Stoop, as a stranger and devil whose presence on the island will wreak havoc on the population. Others, like Birdy and her father Governor Snodgrass, see Stoop as an exotic attraction and a business opportunity. Birdy, further, is taken with the idea of taking part in the sale of slaves in order to get some help around the house—she doesn’t want to do the chores.
As The Snodgrass Conspiracy unfurls, it’s hard not to be taken by the sheer whimsy of the story. Few characters are ever what they seem—except for the villains who are cast in a Dickensian light—and indeed have the seeds of nuance and intrigue planted here, which will hopefully bloom in future chapters of the series. The plot, while mostly threadbare and unsteady here, is solid enough in this first book to make the readers want to continue with these characters. Dr. Wong, for instance, raises question upon question about him and his role on the island—he himself was once an outsider who stumbled across it, like Stoop—so that he alone cultivates a great desire to read further entries in The Lost Colony series.
The illustration here is also noteworthy for its appealing, eye-catching style. Characters and scenery are exaggerated a bit, just enough to make things seem other-worldly without wholly alien, creating a visual landscape every bit as fanciful as the narrative. And the work is rather uncomplicated, in the best sense of the word. In this, the book is both eye-catching and satisfying. Klein is obviously quite talented as a creator, both in terms of character and illustration, and his rich and full yet nostalgically simplistic visual sensibilities allows for both his writing and art to come to life wonderfully.
It’s this ability of Klein’s, to keep everything appealing despite the often-times meandering story, that makes The Lost Colony, Book One: The Snodgrass Conspiracy so endearing. The groundwork Klein lays in this first book might be a little shaky in places, but his characters are strong enough that they can support his working out the kinks in the structure. It’s hard to imagine anything but good things as this series continues. But whatever happens, this much is for sure. It will be interesting to see where he takes his characters and the island in further books—and it’s certainly a journey that will be very easy to take.
Like the island and the people at the center of this tale, The Lost Colony, while off the beaten path, is worth exploring. And once it is, it’s difficult to pry yourself away from it.