Feature

A Voyage Long and Strange

Several years ago, Pulitzer Prize

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz (Holt, $27.50)

Several years ago, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Tony Horwitz suddenly realized that he had “mislaid an entire century” of American history. During a stopover in Plymouth, Mass., he was at first amused to learn that some tourists mistakenly assume that the Pilgrims landed there in 1492. But then he realized that he himself knew almost nothing about the 100-plus years between Columbus’ first voyage and the “16-0-something” founding of Jamestown, Va. This wasn’t some nameless lull in Tibetan history that he’d failed to commit to memory; “this was the forgotten first chapter in my own country’s founding by Europeans.” It was time, he decided, to commit himself to “rediscovering” the settlement of the New World.

It’s “getting a bit old” these days to say that the founding of our country was a messier business than our grammar-school teachers let on, said Andrew Ferguson in The New York Times. But Horwitz is one of our most entertaining writers of popular history, and his “funny and lively new travelogue” freshens up a heap of old tales that we really should know. He “sifts evidence of the Vikings’ landing in Newfoundland”; he tracks Coronado through Mexico, Texas, and into Kansas; he even dons heavy armor to join a group of Florida conquistador re-enactors. Each new story reminds us that the Pilgrims were latecomers to the continent-settling business and that in myriad ways we still walk in the footprints of Spanish, French, and Portuguese pioneers whom we never think of when we’re carving our Thanksgiving turkeys.

Not all of Horwitz’s misadventures hang together, said Mike Pearson in the Denver Rocky Mountain News. Though he’s eager to demonstrate that America was settled from “south to north” rather than from Plymouth Rock west, “there’s no through line” guiding his own wanderings, and “his prose varies from uplifting to sluggish.” The common thread is that Horwitz’s investigation into the bungling and cruelty of America’s European forebears makes him a “sadder but wiser” amateur historian, said Chuck Leddy in The Christian Science Monitor. He even reconciles himself to the persistence of some of our founding myths. “Myth is more important than history,” a sage Harvard minister eventually reminds him. “Myth trumps fact. Always does, always has, always will.”

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