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In A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, Tony Horwitz entertains two parallel story lines, one entrenched in the past, serving as the focal source, and the other, solidly grounded in the present, serving as a complementary source. The main narrative is specifically devoted to an historical account of the "discovery" of the Americas by European explorers, whereas the ancillary narrative is dedicated to a re-discovery of what remains of the lands and people who inhabited the main narrative. The outcome of this story-telling juxtaposition is two engaging narratives that, albeit similarly situated and ostensibly driven by the intent to uncover their shared attributes, never appear to have much in common as if they were two strangers who accidentally initiated a conversation, believing that they might have something to share but soon come to realize the illusory nature of their belief.
Horwitz successfully engages the metaphor of the traveler who knows little about the past of his/her country and all the characters and stories that populate it. This scenario justifies his decision to embark on a journey that will lead him not only to uncover the many events that characterize the European conquest of the Americas but also to rectify the understanding of those events that formal instruction and the passage of time may have distorted. His journey, which is intended to document the "facts" of the past by relying on the historical artifacts that are conventionally found in museums and libraries, is entangled with another less traditional journey, which, albeit driven by the same intent, relies on surveying the lands that have hosted the "facts" narrated by those artifacts. The latter is mostly a survey that does not cease to be unsatisfying and whose usefulness is never clearly defined. Namely, although the author acknowledges that little remains of the past on the lands that once hosted the quite horrific scenes of the European conquest, his excursions involving topographical surveys and interviews with the individuals who inhabit those lands neither elucidate the existing narratives nor help to discern their authenticity.
Notwithstanding their questionable usefulness, the author's excursions are engaging and compelling. Most of the interviews reveal that the gruesome facts of the Europeans' conquest of the American territories, inhabitants, cultures, and resources remain little known to the general public or are distorted by the ethnic stereotypes of the prevailing European traditions. The few interviews that deviate from this script are conducted with real or presumed experts who distinguish themselves for their remarkable determination to uncover the "facts" of a given expedition or settlement. In the verbal exchanges with the author, the interviewees emerge as tangible and attractive quixotic characters. Not surprisingly, their idiosyncratic present and no less idiosyncratic personal past appear not to offer a simple, one-dimensional account of their determination to investigate historical accounts whose authenticity remains difficult, if not impossible, to assess. On the contrary, the sheer complexity of these characters makes each of them an enigma, which, as each of the historical accounts whose authenticity they aim to assess, may never be unequivocally resolved.
The main narrative represents an illustration of Horwitz's skillful writing. His portrayal of the many historical events that pertain to the European conquest dutifully includes contradictory accounts and painstakingly identifies missing segments of available narratives. Yet, he does not refrain from venturing beyond the information gathered from reading historical documents and interpreting the material traces of past existences. His goal is to illustrate scenarios that are both plausible and probable. Accordingly, he offers a uniform story line for each of the historical events he narrates by defining the most probable account and embellishing it with plausible "facts", if the "facts" are missing or uncertain. As a result, Horwitz's script is quite compelling because it forces the reader not only to examine the scarcely available "evidence" critically, but also to ponder the feasibility of alternative story lines, which may not always be those provided by the author. Obviously, Horwitz's skillful writing is partially responsible for this outcome; but his equally skillful and objective examination of the available "facts" and his weaving them into well-crafted scenarios make A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World a required read for all who believe that "knowledge of history as detailed as possible is essential if we want to comprehend the past and be prepared for the future" (Pearl S. Buck, 1954).
Undoubtedly, Horwitz expertly weaves a wealth of historical events. Sadly, all reflect the unfairness and sheer brutality of the European conquest of the "new world" and the absurdity of explorations mostly driven by the maddening need to acquire wealth rather than by the desire to acquire knowledge. Purported as mere explorations, North American conquest by Europeans robbed many Native Americans of their lives by introducing unknown diseases, overpowering weapons, and warfare tactics. Those who survived had their freedom forcefully curtailed, were often deprived of their lands and worldly goods, and witnessed the obliteration of their cultural traditions and identities. Throughout the atrocities of conquest, Horwitz reminds the reader that cases of successful resistance, impressive resilience, and even of peaceful coexistence existed. Yet Horwitz consistently reports destructive actions, which were so vast in number, magnitude and scope that their scars are still detectable now, centuries after their occurrence, not only in the descendants of native inhabitants but also on land their ancestors fought to protect. Scars left by such acts on people and lands, as reported by Horwitz and by numerous other writers, are reminders of the deleterious consequences of greed, accompanied by illusions of racial/ethnic superiority.
The sheer number and undeniable magnitude of atrocities narrated by Horwitz is likely to overwhelm even the most devoted reader. Sadly, atrocities of a more near past and those currently happening suggest that actions as described by Horwitz have continued to occur in diverse lands, by different individuals and by different means. Reading books such as Horowitz's A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World may not halt these atrocities, but it will certainly demand more than a thought-filled pause from the reader.
© 2008 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York