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A Voyage Long and Strange, by Tony Horwitz

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, by Tony Horwitz is a recapitulation of the exploration and settlement of areas that would become part of the United States up to and including the landing of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock.

Horwitz's approach to history is unique. He writes about events as he travels to the locations where they occurred. In the course of this he tries to ferret out how the noted events have affected the present conditions in that place. To do this, he must switch between historical narrative, and present day travelogue. In the course of it, we are treated to some cogent analysis.

The idea for "A Voyage Long and Strange" is that there was much that happened on the North American Continent before the arrival of the pilgrims and many of us have lost that history from 1492 to 1620. This book was meant to fill in some blanks in popular cultural history and to reveal how these events have shaped us today. Interestingly enough, I believe Horwitz sees the shaping as not merely event driven, but geographically driven. It was as though the vast land and resources shaped the explorers themselves. The Vikings who found New Vinland, the Conquistadors that traipsed over the South, and the Englishmen who founded Jamestown, were mainly young men on the make, looking for gold, fortune, and excitement. At least they found plenty of excitement. The difference we find between the pre-Plymouth Europeans who came to North America and the Pilgrims, was that the pilgrims were striving not to extract the riches of the continent but to build something new - the "City on the Hill". This drive to build, coupled with the profit motive of the earlier settlers are what would make the United States the most powerful economic force in the world. It is also what would make the Pilgrims so much more memorable in the American psyche.

Tony Horwitz is an engaging writer. His sense of narrative is keen in that he seems to know what to include in a story and what to leave out. His capacity for self-deprecation, coupled with a light tone, make the travelogue sequences as fascinating as the historical sequences. I also find it interesting how difficult it often seems for Horwitz to find people in the present day who are aware enough of the past to comment on it with any authority.

One aspect of American history that is unavoidable when reading this book is the revelation of how cruel men could be to each other in the pursuit of their ambitions. DeSoto and Menendez stand out particularly in this regard. Mr. Horwitz does a masterful job in treating with the atrocities committed, yet not allowing judgementalism interfere with the telling of a good story. Also, he does not paint the whole of European society at the time as cruel and inhuman. For every DeSoto there was a De Vaca, or Bartoleme De Las Casas who did his utmost to lessen the plight of the indigenous populations. I like his fair and even-handed tone, especially when he comes to analyse why the Pilgrims have become so important to the history of America.

In the course of my children's school work, I have recently reread the "Pictorial Encyclopedia of American History" on the age of exploration, as well as the First Book of American History, by Edward Eggelston, a primer written in the 1950s. I was quite amazed at how well the historical writing of over 50 years ago holds up. Perhaps Horwitz is correct in his assumption that we have lost some of that history before the Mayflower. Yet it was not that long ago that it was thoroughly taught in the Elementary schools. It would seem to me that this deficit in our collective consciousness is a modern development. Even so, it is one that should be rectified, and "A Voyage Long and Strange" goes a long way in doing this.

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World is available at Amazon.

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