Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Voyage Long and Strange - Tony Horwitz

   2008; 437 pages.  Full Title : A Voyage Long and Strange: On The Trail Of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America.  New Author? : Yes.  Genre : Non-Fiction; U.S. History; Travelogue.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    “Hey, tell me everything you remember about the earliest days of Europeans exploring what is now the United States.”

   “Okay, ‘Columbus sailed the ocean blue, in fourteen hundred ninety-two’.  Oh yeah, then the Pilgrims or somebody landed on Plymouth Rock.  Around 1620, as I recall.”

    “Very good.  But there’s a 128-year gap in between those two dates.  What was going on during that century-and-a-quarter after Columbus and before the Pilgrims?”

    “I dunno.  Cortez and Pizarro, maybe.  But that was down in Mexico and South America.  Say, what was going on up here in North America during that time?”

    That’s what this book is all about.

What’s To Like...
    A Voyage Long And Strange chronicles Tony Horwitz’s  efforts to answer the question posed above.  Its 13 chapters are divided into three logical and by-and-large chronological sections: Discovery, Conquest, and Settlement, plus a great Prologue that details the Norsemen (there was more than one) stumbling onto Newfoundland a half a millennium before Columbus, but not staying.

    Tony Horwitz will inevitably remind you of Bill Bryson: both recount travels they have taken, with wit and information that will keep your interest in high gear.  But Horwitz mostly drives while Bryson mostly walks, and Horwitz focuses more on History, whereas Bryson seems more into Local Culture.  I enjoy both authors, and being a History buff, I really liked riding along with Horwitz here as he sought to travel the same paths of explorers, conquistadors, and settlers.

    You’ll learn lots of fascinating bits of trivia along the way.  For instance, Plymouth was not the first English colony here (Fort St. George was); the Pilgrims were not the first to settle in Massachusetts (Cuttyhunk was, in 1602); and Ponce de Leon wasn’t looking for the Fountain of Youth (he was searching for gold, like every other conquistador).

    The sections alternate between Historical accounts about the brave and the foolish who came in search of gold and glory; and Horwitz’s Personal accounts, as he tries to “feel what they felt”, adjust to local culture, and sift through the tourist-drawing myths and legends that have sprung up since then.  You’ll chuckle as he experiences a sweat lodge, endures the tropical weather in the Dominican Republic, and gasp as he tackles the mighty Mississippi River in a rickety canoe.

    The text is sprinkled with some very kewl maps and pictures.  You’ll meet lots of park rangers, museum guides, tourist shop owners, and Historical Society reenactors.  They all have stories to tell.  A couple cuss words do occasionally arise in Horwitz’s conversations with these folk, but I thought it set the tone quite aptly.

Kewlest New Word ...
Skraelings (n., pl..) : Inuits, or other indigenous inhabitants of Greenland or Vinland (a Vikingism)-
Others : Prolix (adj.); Benighted (adj.); Orotund (adj.)

    “Ate some street food.  Not sure I should have.”
    Caonabo looked alarmed.  “What was it called?”
    “Don’t know.  Chimichanga, or something.”
    “That’s it.  Chewy and greasy.”
    Caonabo shook his head.  “This is very bad.”  Chicharrones, he said, were deep-fried pork skins with gristly flesh and fat attached, flavored with road fumes and flies.  Though popular with the Dominicans, the dish was famously lethal to foreigners.  “Eat just a little bit and you regret it for the rest of your life, which isn’t long,” Caonabo said.
    “I ate two plates.”  (loc. 1907)

    I wasn’t sure I followed his argument.  “So you’re saying we should honor myth rather than fact?” I asked.
    “Precisely.”  The reverend smiled benignly, as I imagined he might at a bewildered parishioner.  “Myth is more important than history.  History is arbitrary, a collection of facts.  Myth we choose, we create, we perpetuate.”
    He spooned up the last of his succotash.  “The story here may not be correct, but it transcends truth.  It’s like religion – beyond facts.  Myth trumps fact, always does, always has, always will.”  (loc. 6569)

Kindle Details...
    A Voyage Long And Strange currently sells for $9.99 at Amazon, although Santa Claus brought it to me as a gift last Christmas.  Santa’s remarkably up-to-date, technology-wise.  Tony Horwitz has a number of other books of the same genre, all in the range of $9.99-$12.99, including Blue Latitudes, which Santa also brought me this past Christmas.

 “Estamos jodidos.”  (“We’re f*cked.”  (loc. 1307)
    I was pleasantly surprised that I knew of most of the main characters that roamed around American in 1492-1620.  Coronado, De Soto, John Smith, etc.  But there were also a bunch that I’d never heard of – Bjarni, Onate, Narvaez, Jean Ribault, Pedro Menendez, and Bartholomew Gosnold, to namedrop a few of them.  And there was a whole section of the French vs. the Spanish duking it out to the death, from the Carolinas and Florida, respectively, that was totally new to me.

    I also thoroughly liked the way Tony Horwitz wraps up A Voyage Long and Strange,  wherein he weighs the pluses and minuses of telling the true facts about these early explorers (warts and all) versus promoting the legends and mystique that have cropped up long afterward.  While he (and I) naturally lean towards historical accuracy, he nevertheless admits he can see some merit in the fanciful tales.

    9 Stars.  Tony Horwitz came highly recommended by one of my bosses who is also a History buff, and I was in no way disappointed by this, my introduction to his books.  Subtract ½ star if you’re not particularly keen of Bill Bryson books, but still like to read Historical Non-Fiction.

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