In the footsteps of Columbus

Impartiality is difficult when trying to bridge hundreds of years and radically different worldviews.

columbus book 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
columbus book 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World By Tony Horwitz Henry Holt 464 pages; $27.50 For many readers, hearing the words "history" and "book" in the same sentence invokes groans and nightmarish memories of high school. Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World not only changes that, it also irrevocably changes the way you view the New World - past, present, and future. No small tasks, but this is no small author. Horwitz masterfully and gracefully steers us through the annals of early American history and his own travel narrative, keeping us fascinated all the while. And he even manages to make us laugh along the way. The prologue begins on a humorous note. Horwitz spends a night in Plymouth while on a road trip, having chosen the Plymouth exit only because he didn't want to pull off the interstate before a baseball game on the radio ended. The following day he goes to see Plymouth Rock, which he likens to "a fossilized potato." While at the site, he speaks with a park ranger who observes, "Americans learn about 1492 and 1620 as kids and that's all they remember as adults... The rest of the story is blank." Horwitz plumbs the depths of his own knowledge of early American history and finds only snippets. So he sets out to fill in the blanks, taking us along on his journey of rediscovery. The journey begins not with Columbus and the West Indies - though Horwitz gets there eventually - as some might expect, but rather with the Vikings and Newfoundland. Horwitz's precise use of anecdotes and quotes helps to illuminate these historical figures, rendering them round, memorable characters in the vibrant story of the New World rather than mere names. For example, we learn that the only problem Erik the Red encounters in Greenland is that his "wife converted to Christianity and refused to sleep with her pagan husband, much to his displeasure." The book is full of details like this - we also learn that, upon tasting iguana for the first time Columbus remarked, "Tastes like chicken." These colorfully depicted characters propel the reader through history. As do the colorful modern-day characters Horwitz encounters during his travels retracing the footsteps of the early explorers of the New World. It's A Voyage Long and Strange all right. Horwitz meets fascinating and sometimes hilarious people and finds himself in equally interesting and humorous situations, offering them up for the reader's delight. Take, for instance, his experience in an Indian sweat lodge. He hyperventilates. He writhes. He pokes fun at himself all the while. Not to misrepresent this book as overly light. Amid the fun, Horwitz takes many deeply and dearly held American myths to task and dispels them, one after another. He doesn't shy away from difficult and sensitive topics such as the treatment of the Indians at the hands of the European explorers and settlers. Further, Horwitz sheds light on the historical underpinnings of several contemporary issues, large and small, helping the reader to see the dynamic nature of history and illuminating the long line that is past, present and future. The chapter titled "Dominican Republic: You think there are still Indians?" is particularly powerful. The lingering aftereffects of colonization resonate subtly throughout daily life in the Caribbean, and Horwitz portrays this perfectly. Sometimes the note of resentment about European conquest sounds loudly - one Dominican man Horwitz interviews curses Christopher Columbus and then explains, "This was a rich island. He took away all the gold and other goods and ever since we've been poor." However, Horwitz takes care to present multiple sides of even the most contentious historical and contemporary issues. You always get a sense of his cool, journalistic impartiality. Impartiality is an extremely difficult task for an author when he's trying to bridge the gap between hundreds of years and radically different worldviews. In his attempt to slip off his modern lenses and understand the New World as the early explorers might have, Horwitz visits the places the Europeans explored and gazes out onto the landscape, attempting to imagine it as it might have appeared then. In doing so, he seamlessly slips into exquisite descriptions that border on the poetic: "Low, gnarly creosote shrubs and spiny mesquite trees dotted the parched landscape, interspersed with organ pipe cactus and the towering saguaro, its branches upraised as if in prayer." In the final chapter, Horwitz reflects upon the landscape again. At Plymouth, where the story began, Horwitz remarks, "When I returned to Plymouth, three years after my first brief visit, the place felt altogether different... It took me a while to figure out why. Plymouth hadn't changed; I had." And so has the reader. A Voyage Long and Strange is a thought-provoking, thoroughly researched and, above all, engaging account of early American history, tightly woven with Horwitz's travels. The result is a rich tapestry teeming with vibrant characters, memorable facts and fascinating tidbits that reads like great fiction. History, after all, is a kind of story; shouldn't it read like one?