The best history books provide insight into events that shape our lives or understanding of past events that we now take for granted. And a book by Tony Horwitz called “A Voyage Long and Strange On the Trail of the Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonies and Other Adventurers in Early America” does this better than anything I I was forced to read for college history classes.
Horwitz blends his sense of history and with a reporter’s eye for detail as he charges through the lands made famous by Leif Ericson, Cabeza de Vaca, Columbus, Coronado, De Soto, in his subcompact. What sets this book apart from other histories of the New World is Horwitz’s quest to find links between two eras: those of the early explorers and today’s land of tourist historically themed tourist spots. He does an incredible job, capturing the hardship of life on the trail and contrasting it with bemused humor that guarantees smiles throughout every chapter.
The author’s search for the trail of Cabeza de Vaca who wandered the gulf coast nude until he made his way back to Mexico is the first account I’ve read that establishes a route for one of the earliest New World explorer. And his ground truth reporting of DeSoto and Coronado has done more to paint a three-dimensional picture of those two parties than anything I’ve ever read about Old World adventures in the Americas.
Horwitz’s encounters with amateur historians and professional park rangers wryly documents the irony of what we’ve been taught in history classes versus what really happened. In one encounter with an amateur Florida historian specializing in the bloody defeat of the French Huguenots by the Spanish, the amateur historian accurately describes early explorers by saying “These guys were psychopathic nutballs. Celebrating them is like idolizing Charles Manson.”
I recommend this book highly. It’s well written and brings new meaning to legends taught as history. Serious and amateur historians alike will enjoy this addition to their libraries. Beside ““A Voyage Long and Strange On the Trail of the Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonies and Other Adventurers in Early America” Horwitz is also the author of another of my favorite books “Confederates in the Attic.”
Special thanks to former CMP Media colleague and good friend, Rich Castagna, for sending me this book. It’s too bad more history books didn’t include ground truth reporting by authors charging up old trails in their subcompacts and rented minivans.—Jim Forbes, 02/12/2010