Review: A Voyage Long and Strange

“What happened in North America between Columbus’s sail in 1492 and the Pilgrims’ arrival in 1620? ” Tony Horwitz notes that most Americans – including himself before he started working on this title – have little idea, having grown up believing that their country started when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. And in a 464 page tome, Horwitz proceeds to fill in the missing 16th century by tracing the journeys of the early explorers across the land called America.

Let me start of by noting that, despite its length, Tony Horwitz’s A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America was a surprisingly easy read. As a non-American, the blatant gaps in the history that is taught in US schools never bothered me at all, and I would have quite merrily gone on my way if this book hadn’t been voted in for bookclub. After all, history is meant to be dull! However, the humour that Horwitz instills into the journeys he presents is a page turner. There were a couple of things that I was taken aback by (such as one instance where he likens his first sweat to being “in the ovens of Auschwitz”…p43), but he has a black humour so akin to the self-deprecating British, and even American works like Grosse Pointe Blank, that I was grinning most of my way through the book.

Though given how often he puts down his own fellows, it probably helps that I’m not American.

This is a very different history to that bits and pieces I’ve been exposed to through other forms of media, though admittedly, I seldom go out of my way to look any deeper. It’s just not quite as interesting as the Crusades, or the Meiji Restoration, you know. However, if the Pilgrims come across as far too puritan for my liking (by reputation and on account of the current state of the country), then the gung-ho explorers that Horwitz uncovers are a breath of fresh air as far as “psychopathic nutballs” can be anyway (p.285). Much of the exploration may have been done in the name of gold, but trekking through miles of swamp and grassland in armour that would conquer many in the current age deserves at least some respect.

Speaking of differences from the modern world, Horwitz reminds us that those early explorers were traveling in an age vastly different from one in which airplanes can take us to the other side of the globe in a mere 24 hours. Whilst there were some maps and guides of varying degrees of experience, early travelers faced journeys of long months before even reaching what they their destinations, planned or otherwise, and there was a much greater chance than today that they wouldn’t make it. Furthermore, the lands they finally set foot on were often wild, with food to be found, tracks to be beaten and dwellings to be built. The Pilgrims were the most successful of the early settlers, but the descendants of other settlers can still be traced in parts of the country, like Florida, not to mention the colonies that disappeared.

On the other hand, A Voyage Long and Strange also raises some important questions. We must not forget that even the early conquistadors were not the first people to set foot on American soil – the Indians were. The combination of greedy gold seekers and the diseases that they brought with them combined to wipe out civilisations that occupied much of the continent. Even today, many Americans aren’t fully aware that “Thanksgiving”, a holiday proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln to remember and celebrate the Pilgrims’ success, “is a reminder of the genocide of millions of (Indians), the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture.” (p.382)

Furthermore, even though many people see America as a land of immigrants, a melting pot of people who have come from all over the globe to establish a better life for themselves and their children, this is far from reflected in the distinctions that people are asked to make about themselves. This problem is a concern especially for those who trace ancestry back to some of the Indian tribes. Some put “human” (p.355), some others “other” (p.319) because they’re “all mixed up between two worlds”. The other challenge facing some of Indian descendants is that Western thought has now turned to the view of trying to preserve these cultures. However, these descendants often do not actually know what their cultures originally were like, as traditions of different Indian tribes have been simplified and combined to become what they are today. Trying to uncover what those traditions were originally may only lead to further confusion. It is a sad reality that the attempt by one culture to record something about another culture almost necessarily results in it being changed into something that it wouldn’t have become without that contact.

But enough pretentiousness from me. Horwitz has dug deep to uncover what really lies behind the country we know as America. However, although these stories of the early settlers are far more interesting than the glorified success of the Pilgrims, he admits that myth always perpetuates in the end, as it has in the oral traditions of many aboriginal cultures, and from the worlds of the Ancients and of the various major relegions. “Myth is more important than history. History is arbitrary, a collection of facts. Myth we choose, we create, we perpetuate….Myth trumps fact, always does, always has, always will.”

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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