Characters Discussed

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Jordan, one of two alternating narrators. His earliest memory begins the tale, and his romantic heroism buoys it. As an infant, he is fished from the Thames in 1630 by the Dog-Woman, who christens him for a more redemptive river, rears him as her own, and reluctantly relinquishes him to the quest that drives the narrative. Inspired at the age of three by the sight of the first banana brought to England, the young Jordan spends his youth sailing handmade boats and dreaming of exotic lands. At the age of ten, he is discovered by the famous explorer and royal gardener, John Tradescant, who, as his mentor, provides him with passage to the uncharted world. He journeys in search of Fortunata, the fleet, dancing princess he once glimpsed, in the hope that she will lead him to himself.

The Dog-Woman

The Dog-Woman, the independent giantess who shares narration duties with her adopted son. She breeds fighting and racing dogs for a living. Heavier than an elephant but capable of melting into thin air, the Dog-Woman is the earthier reporter of the two, providing historical context to Jordan’s more fanciful and philosophic descriptions. A staunch Royalist, she uses her fabulous size and considerable courage to both protect and nurture the boy and to battle the intolerant Puritans. Self-sufficient and murderous (her father was her first victim), the Dog-Woman is vulnerable to a mother’s anxiety over the heartbreak of her son.

John Tradescant

John Tradescant, who is based on the historical figure Tradescant the Younger. He spent his twenties exploring exotic places and collecting rare plants for his father’s museum and garden at Lambeth. After his father’s death in 1637, the post of gardener to the king fell to him, but his heart remained at sea. Enchanted by one of Jordan’s vessels, he sees in him his chance to voyage anew. Loyal, cultured, tolerant, and worldly, Tradescant represents the virtues of the monarchy in contrast to the ignorance, repression, and hypocrisy of the Puritans.


Fortunata, the youngest of the Twelve Dancing Princesses whose stories make up a section in the first half of the novel. She is the object of Jordan’s affections and so light she may be merely an essence. After escaping her arranged wedding and traveling the world, she opened a dancing school in Barbados where the pupils spin so quickly that they become harmonic points of light. By the time Jordan finds her, she no longer wants to be rescued, but she reveals enough of herself for him to navigate by her.

The Dog-Woman’s neighbor

The Dog-Woman’s neighbor, a woman so filthy she is mistaken for a side of saltbeef. She counts clairvoyance among her occult powers and predicts heartache for both Jordan and his mother.

Preacher Scroggs

Preacher Scroggs and

Neighbour Firebrace

Neighbour Firebrace, opportunists who join the Puritan uprising and denounce the king. Later, they are discovered at the brothel, and the king is avenged.

Nicholas Jordan

Nicholas Jordan, a modern counterpart to Jordan. He gives up a career in the Navy to join the ecological protest of the pretty chemist he sees in a newspaper photograph.

A chemist

A chemist, the unnamed modern recipient of the Dog-Woman’s prodigious outrage and Fortunata’s charisma. She is an ecological terrorist and takes up the feminine narration when the novel jumps to the late twentieth century.

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Critical Essays