Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Book Review: A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz

Very recently I had been lamenting to a friend that I was melancholy as I'd only read one 5-star book this year (stars are on my Goodreads reviews.) And then I read A Voyage Long and Strange! Yay! My second 5-star book this year! I ran across this book a couple of months ago at a friend's house in Chicago. I was just about to hide it amongst my jeans in my suitcase when I noticed it was autographed. Argh. I couldn't even ask to borrow it since I live in another state. I looked at all the maps and other images throughout, read the first few pages, and lusted for it. I got a copy shortly after I got home which like every book I own, joined a pile of hundreds of its friends. Sunday I picked it up to Read All Day. I will admit to not having finished it in one day but it is longish (400 pp.) and has a ton of information, and also I was thrilled that it took so long to read as I got to enjoy it all the longer!

Mr. Horwitz was in Plymouth, MA, and saw the Plymouth Rock. If you've ever seen it, it's a big let-down. It's fairly small, has a big crack down the middle, and really doesn't hold up to its publicity. He thought it was a little silly to have so much hype for something not important in American history (and actually, whether it has any historic importance is even up for debate), as Plymouth was by far from the first place Europeans set foot on American soil. In fact, what happened between Plymouth and 1492? That's a good chunk of time. And of course the answer isn't "nothing." So Mr. Horwitz sets out to find out exactly what happened during that century that history class normally skips. Turns out, a lot, and it was pretty interesting (in my opinion history class always skips the interesting stuff.)

Did you know that Plymouth wouldn’t have been colonized if not for Syphilis? And the woman who successfully got Thanksgiving recognized as a national holiday is the same woman who wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb”? And that St. Augustine, FL is 50 years older than Plymouth? And that Vikings (actually Greenlanders) visited Canada and Maine centuries before Columbus?

I thought this book was going to be a more straightforward history book, but instead it's also a memoir/travelogue. Mr. Horwitz literally follows in the footsteps of the explorers and conquistadors (and slaves and castaways) that traipse nearly all over the lower 48 prior to the landing of the Mayflower. He visits historic sites (many sadly difficult to find, neglected, and some even paved over or sunken), and talks with park rangers, tour guides, local historians, reenactors, and sometimes local kooks. I was impressed actually with the number of locals he talked to who do know who Coronado and Hernando de Soto are (in fact, I fear a quiz taken at my local suburban Wal-Mart would result in far worse answers than he gets in the back woods and rural communities of the South and Southwest.)

Although Mr. Horwitz is erudite and full of historical research, he manages to talk to otherwise reticent individuals who don't always want to share, and obviously doesn't come across as a snob. He's willing to go into a Florida swamp in summer, eat mysterious foods, and canoe across the Mississippi river. I imagine his willingness to try things goes a long way towards his ability to get strangers to talk to him. He's also fun and funny. He recognizes irony and the humor in futility. He doesn't treat these explorers with reverence, nor is he attempting to tear down all sacred cows with his research. He is trying to present realistic portrayals of men who today's society might find to be racist barbarians, and even occasionally crazy (I have read excerpts of Columbus's journals and Mr. Horwitz is very kind in his summary of them.) Mr. Horwitz goes into this project with an open mind, and a healthy dose of skepticism and determination. I occasionally laughed out loud, learned a vast amount (most of which is pretty darn useless, my favorite kind of information!), and immediately ordered his other books. To me, this book read a lot like Bill Bryson's travels around the U.S., but with a large dose of historical facts sprinkled in. I am thoroughly annoyed with myself that I had heard about his books when they came out, I even thought to myself that they sounded good and like I'd like them, and then I didn't do anything. Didn't buy then, didn't read them. Am rectifying that egregious oversight now. Expect reviews of Blue Latitudes and Confederates in the Attic later this year! I absolutely loved this book. A perfect chaser to it would be Mayflower by Nathanial Philbrick, who takes over just where Tony Horwitz ends (although not with much humor or irreverance.)


Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

I thought I was the only person on the planet that wanted to read this book. I bought a discounted copy at Barnes & Noble a couple of months ago, but haven't opened the cover (a common refrain). I've been really disappointed in the books I've read this year, especially lately, so I may have to get this out sooner than later.

Carin Siegfried said...

Go for it! It was awesome. I loved it.