Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Book Review: "A Voyage Long and Strange"

Reclaiming the historical muckraker mantle he donned in Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz goes a little further back in time in his latest book, A Voyage Long and Strange (Holt). After coming to the realization - during a visit to the underwhelming pebble that is Plymouth Rock - that he didn't know much about what happened on the American continents between 1492 and 1620 ("This wasn't a gap in my education; it was a chasm", he writes), Horwitz decides to both brush up on his history and explore how the historical landscapes compare with their contemporary counterparts.

To that end, he sets off on wild journeys in the footsteps of the early explorers: Newfoundland with the Vikings, the Southwest's "pueblo country" with Coronado, the swamps and river valleys of the Southeast with De Soto, the Florida coast with a bunch of French Huguenots in the 1560s, and the Jamestown region with Captain John Smith (among others). Alternating brief historical essays with accounts of his own travels, Horwitz offers a rollicking (if slightly selective) tour of the American backcountry (it was all backcountry then, and some parts still are). He comes away from it all with a new perspective on the early explorers, lauding (?) the Spaniards for a "tenacity that bordered on derangement," (p. 192) and noting his newfound amazement not that so many Europeans died in trying to scratch a foothold in the Americas, but that any lived at all.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book to me was Horwitz' painstaking research into the native cultures of the areas tromped through by the European invaders - not only through historical records, but also by going to the areas today (including Zuni territory in New Mexico and Pamunkey lands in Virginia) and meeting with current members of the native groups. It's easy to come away from the European travel accounts without a good (or complete) sense of who they were meeting, interacting with (and, usually, not treating very well at all).

As usual, Horwitz meets a long list of strange folks along the way; those characters make his books what they are, and those he meets during the course of these travels are quite a bunch. The book's worth reading just for them.

Throughout the book, Horwitz asks how it is American memory has chosen to prioritize the Pilgrims. In the final paragraphs, after musing about tourist traps and historical memory, he concludes "The past was a consumable, subject to the national preference for familiar products. And history, in America, is a dish best served plain. The first course could include a dollop of Indian in 1492, but not Spanish spice or French sauce or too much Indian corn. Nothing too filling or fancy ahead of the turkey and pumpkin pie, just the way Grandma used to cook it."

Deluded we stand? Perhaps. But Horwitz' book offers a good route into the forgotten history of the first American centuries, and for that reason is highly recommended.