Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World

I received a review copy of the book A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World last month. It is by Tony Horwitz. I enjoyed the book very much and I am happy to give it a good review here.

A description of the book reads:
"On a chance visit to Plymouth Rock, Tony Horwitz realizes he's mislaid more than a century of American history, from Columbus's sail in 1492 to Jamestown's founding in 16-oh-something. Did nothing happen in between? Determined to find out, he embarks on a journey of rediscovery, following in the footsteps of the many Europeans who preceded the Pilgrims to America. An irresistible blend of history, myth, and misadventure, A Voyage Long and Strange captures the wonder and drama of first contact. Vikings, conquistadors, French voyageurs—these and many others roamed an unknown continent in quest of grapes, gold, converts, even a cure for syphilis. Though most failed, their remarkable exploits left an enduring mark on the land and people encountered by late-arriving English settlers. Tracing this legacy with his own epic trek—from Florida's Fountain of Youth to Plymouth's sacred Rock, from desert pueblos to subarctic sweat lodges—Tony Horwitz explores the revealing gap between what we enshrine and what we forget. Displaying his trademark talent for humor, narrative, and historical insight, A Voyage Long and Strange allows us to rediscover the New World for ourselves."

The review copy of the book I received is labelled "Advanced Reader's Edition - Not for Sale." Most of the pictures and maps are missing as the book had yet to reach that stage of production when they sent it to me. The text is also noted as still be subject to proofreading. I have received copies of books like this before at academic conferences as handouts from vendors. This was the first time I got such a book for the purpose of review. I have to admit it made me feel a bit privileged.

I found this book to be a good read. In it, Horwitz visits the various places (Newfoundland, The Dominican Republic, Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Massachusetts) where European colonists explored and sometimes made attempts at colonies. He relates the history of European exploration interspersed with tales these areas in modern times. Horwitz repeatedly goes back and forth between time periods and I found it to be very effective.
Without a doubt, Horwitz presents a strong argument that many of the American origin stories are a myth and that Europeans (not to mention Native Americans) were here long before the Pilgrims made it to Plymouth Rock. I think most people realize that but Horwitz's narrative will make most readers think a bit harder and longer about this.

One complaint I do have about Horwitz's writing is his apparent dislike of the modern inhabitants of some of the areas he visited. I got a strong sense that he went home and told Newfie jokes about the citizens of Newfoundland. I have not the slightest doubt that Horwitz has no desire to ever return to the Dominican Republic. After what he recounts of the country, I would never visit there myself. He also doesn't think much of some Christian Fundamentalists in Florida. While I found his cynicism amusing, I imagine some locals in the areas he writes about will be less amused.

A good summary of what this book is about comes late in the book. Horwtiz quoted a minister in Massachusetts as saying, "Myth is more important than history. History is arbitrary, a collection of facts. Myth we choose, we create, we perpetuate. The story here may not be correct but it transcends truth. It's like religion - beyond facts. Myth trumps facts, always does, always has, always will" (p. 375, 376.)

Horwitz has done a good job of exposing the American myths which deal with the establishment of Europeans in North America. In the process, he describes in a fun style what actually happened. This book is worthwhile and I encourage those interested in American history to give it a look.

1 comment:

M-Dawg said...

This book sounds intriguing.

I live in MA and was just down in Plymouth two weekends ago for a conference.

Thanks for the sharing your review.