Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz

Pop history is a tricky thing: a writer needs to find a subject that a wide readership will think it knows something about, but still knows little enough to be interested in reading a whole book on the subject. I'm sure fascinating books could be written on the life of Charles the Bald or the wars of the Iroquois Federation, or the mercantile traditions of the African empires of the Dark Ages, but they're not likely to be widely acclaimed or read. (On the other hand, who ever thought, ten year ago, that the "this one thing explains the whole world" book, like Cod, would be popular?)

Tony Horwitz is a journalist turned non-fiction book writer -- before this book, he wrote Blue Latitudes, Confederates in the Attic, and Baghdad Without a Map -- and so he needs to write books that people (chief among them, I expect, his editor) will buy and read and like. (But don't we all have to provide some value to other people, whatever it is we do for a living?) A Voyage Long and Strangeis aimed at a strong American audience: it's a book that asks what the early exploration of America was really like, and then proceeds to investigate that, from the Vikings to the Spanish, from Roanoke to Cibola.

In the great dichotomy between desk-bound researchers and knock-on-doors reporters, Horwitz is firmly on the side of the reporters; each chapter of Voyage mostly tells the story of what he learned on one research trip, with details of the places he went, the people he saw, and the experiences he had there. That isn't to say that Horwitz didn't do his research ahead of time, since he clearly did -- Voyage has a twelve-page bibliography -- but that the things he saw and experienced are more important here than the things he read about; that's how he contextualizes it and explains it to his readers.

So Horwitz does tell us about how the Vikings came to "Vinland," and what they did there -- but it's more important that he went to Newfoundland, and crawled into a longhouse, and reported back on what it must have been like. Similarly, Horwitz walks us through a dozen more chapters, detailing how Europeans met (and mostly slaughtered or enslaved, whenever they had the chance) locals in Santo Domingo, the Gulf coast, the desert Southwest, the Plains, across De Soto's march through the South, Florida, Roanoke, Jamestown, and, finally -- ending where, as he puts it, most Americans think history begins -- in Plymouth.

Horwitz is master of his research and in control of his material: he gives an excellent overview of the "discovery" and "exploration" of America -- and those quotes are as much his as mine; he's writing explicitly about how one people came to a land and declared it unpopulated (according to their own lights) in order to seize it for themselves. It can be a depressing story, but Horwitz tries to keep it light wherever possible. This is a story Americans should know more about, and A Voyage Long and Strange will go a long way towards telling many of us more about the past of our nation than we previously knew.

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