Gregoryís latest novel continues the saga of the Tradescant family, gardeners to the Kings of England for generations. At the end of Earthly Joys, John Tradescant, Jr. is off to the colonies in Virginia to see what fresh specimens the New World has to offer for the botanical collection at the Ark, where the family displays flora and fauna, treasures and curiosities from all over the world.
The year is 1642, and almost two decades of Johnís life will be riddled with indecision and controversy, a man who cannot find a home for his affections or his loyalties between two continents embroiled in territorial wars. In England, married to Marie Henriette, sister to the King of France, Charles I struggles with a determined Parliament that seeks to curtail his excesses and penchant toward his wifeís papist beliefs.
Spurred to injudicious alliances through his wifeís advice, Charles challenges Parliamentís authority and the citizens rise up against a king who taxes them beyond reason, indulging his excesses and those of favored nobles, refusing to hear the will of the people.
Sailing for Virginia, John is distraught over the loss of his beloved wife, Jane. He leaves behind his two children, Frances and Johnnie, in the care of his aging father. Stepping onto Virginian soil, John realizes that the colony clings tenaciously to this new land, unable to sustain itself without goods delivered from English ships, stubbornly planting crops while failing to learn the basic survival lessons of the indigenous people.
John meets a young Powhatan and plans to marry her, but his return to England brings unexpected complications and he instead marries a spinster, Hester Pooks, who was left to care for the children after the death of Johnís elderly father. This marriage of convenience allows John to return to Virginia where he begins a double life, marrying his Powhatan sweetheart, finding acceptance as one of the People, only to fail when he refuses to take up arms against the English.
Filled with the same love of gardens and plants stewarded by the Tradescants, history dominates Virgin Earth, the simple pleasures of dedication to service replaced by the need for each man to claim his own birthright. Social upheaval tears the fabric of the Tradescant family asunder, young Johnnie a victim of his fatherís inability to commit to one place or another.
Particularly affected by the duality of his life and an inability to own either past or present, Tradescant is as uneasy as the mid-seventeenth century he inhabits, his character fraught with conflict, mired in contradictions. None of these characters are particularly likeable, their lack of resolve reflected in tumultuous circumstances, dignity shredded by the attrition of war and political ideology. Having survived their marriage and civil war, John and Hester face an uncertain future, mending the remnants of lives driven by expediency at the price of joy.