Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World
By Tony Horwitz
2008 Henry Holt & Company, an imprint of MacMillan Publishers
Hardcover and abridged audiobook, 9780805076035, $27.50

Horwitz, author of the acclaimed Confederates in the Attic, brings us another historical trek that reads like an adventure story.

And an adventure story it truly is, one that ranges all across our continent to unveil the brutal and relentless nature of European discovery in America.

The author visited Plymouth Rock a few years ago and, as is his wont, struck up a conversation with the interpretive ranger on site. The Rock is, in many ways, surprisingly unimpressive, especially when surrounded by gum wrappers and marred by souvenir-seekers through the years.

But what launched Horwitz on his undertaking was something the ranger said. It seems that far too many visitors inquired as to why the Rock had the date “1620” inscribed. Why, they asked, didn’t it say “1492?”

No, Columbus didn’t drop off the Pilgrims before returning to Ferdinand and Isabella’s court. But it motivated Horwitz to ask himself why he, trained as a historian and earning a living as a history writer, could not verifiably fill in the blanks of that century and more.

Thus begins a delightful retracing of the routes of Leif Eiriksson (or was it Bjarni Herjofsson in Vinland and Columbus and his successors in the Caribbean.

We learn how close a thing it was that much of America didn’t speak French and how the Spanish of St. Augustine (the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the U.S.) and Senor Menendez defeated M. Ribault and the French of what is now Jacksonville.

Ponce de Leon’s journeys lead us to Hernando de Soto’s (properly Soto) grueling and merciless travails throughout the southeast United States.

Meanwhile, Coronado’s quest for Cibola and the “lost” cities of gold becomes much richer in Horwitz’s telling. The delightful “revenge” taken by descendants of the natives he terrorized is one of the better stories in Voyage.

And we learn the real truth about the English and their Virginia colonies that preceded the “Pilgrims” by a generation.

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