Saturday, August 12, 2023

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horowitz - Book Review

 



We all grow up in America with an image of who we are and how we got here based on visions of how America was populated and where our belief systems developed. These understandings suggest that English Protestants seeking to escape the Church of England, who came to be known as Pilgrims, first stepped onto the rocky shores of  what is now Massachusetts in 1603, establishing a strong community which grew into and spread a new nation. Little in our understandings of who we are and how this country evolved from in indigenous native populations. For instance, the Miamisburg Mound in Ohio may date from 800 BC - 100 AD.  The remains of thriving Indian cultures have been discovered in almost every part of what is now North America.   These people, perhaps, millions of what are now called Indians farmed, grew crops, herded animals, and fought wars between themselves. 

We also have been taught little about the other, earlier explorations of North America from Scandinavia, Spain, and Portugal which took place for several centuries before the Pilgrims arrived. In A Voyage Long And Strange (Henry Holt & Co., 2008) Tony Horowitz sets his readers straight in his own unique and often amusing explorations of places Europeans visited, the peoples they met when they got here, the hardships they endured within the context of how those experiences have been ignored by school history. Written in the context of his own journey in the early 21st century, Horowitz presents the history and reality as well as a strong sense of place in this enlightening and insightful book about whom we are and how we "discovered" America.

Horowitz takes the guise of an interested amateur as he follows the routes taken by Vikings arriving before the year 1000. Columbus, may have sailed the ocean blue in 1492, but he never found the North American continent during his explorations, Evidence suggests that Spanish explorers not only explored what are now the Caribbean Islands, but also crossed what is now the southern United States from Florida to the Midwest as well as Mexico and Texas, as well as sailing up the West coast of California and Oregon. At every placed they explored they found complex cultures which we grouped together as what are now known as Indians. These people lived in complex societies, practiced effective, abundant farming, and fought wars against their enemies. All this happened before explorers landed at what is now Virginia beginning in 1540, where they sought to establish permanent livelihood before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

Horowitz plays the role of an innocent traveler looking for evidence of about the alien (that is: European) explorers to sites in North America and Mexico, as well as the Caribbean Islands. At each site he visits, he plays the role of a na├»ve visitor with  little or no information about the European incursions on local places. In seeking to explore the cultures of an indigenous population and the effects of the exploration and exploitation of this continent the explorers thought of as a large land-mass separating them from the Far East. What they encountered were organized societies from hunter-gatherers to sophisticated kingdoms. 

Since most of the explorers were there to chase riches, rumored towers of gold and silver, to return to their native country and gain fame and fortune back home, they were mostly unprepared for the natives they met. Depending on the nature of the lands they found, the explorers discovered a variety of indigenous peoples that, for at least a few centuries of European exploration were lumped together as Indians who lived in tribes. Depending on the climate and resources available in various places, these people were grouped into everything from rather rich kingdoms to highly organized agricultural societies, less organized groups of people able to live off the land. They had not discovered gun powder, so were much to the mercy of their invaders. Worse still, they had never been introduced to the various diseases these explorers brought with them from Europe. They had developed no resistance to the variety of disease common in Europe. Disease, rather than military prowess, probably tipped the odds to the favor of the invaders from the east.  

As Horowitz travels, which range from Nova Scotia and Labrador to the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, and much of the The American Southwest, Jamestown, and finally to where we think our history begins, New England. In every location he visits, he finds sites destroyed by time, development, and ignorance of the cultural riches which had once dominated the continent only to be destroyed by visitors who cared not at all for these people they "discovered." Horowitz discovers places that are still preserved, descendants of the local tribes as well as people dedicated to preserving the few remaining sites as well as some serious archeology. He maintains a good humor about the contrasts between contemporary tourists and the genuine wars of conquest fought over a period of two or three hundred years in North America. 

Tony Horowitz

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Tony Horowitz (1960-2019) published a number of books in which he created a sub-genre of the explorer social observer. "His journalism was always participatory, and he took readers along for the ride,” Joel Achenbach, a reporter for The Washington Post, said by email on Tuesday. “He climbed masts on sailing ships, rode mules, marched with Confederate re-enactors, and ventured into dive bars in the remote crossroads of America.” (NY Times Obituary, May 28, 2019) 

I purchased A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World from ThriftBooks.com, a site I highly recommend to people wishing to purchased used books which are usually in very good condition. 

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