A Voyage Long and StrangeA Voyage Long and Strange
by Tony Horwitz

In 1492, Columbus reached America. In 1620, the Pilgrims arrived. But what happened in the 118 years between those two dates? As the author points out, most school history books skip over that gap without a word. He sets out to fill in that missing century, journeying through the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast, the Southwest, the Great Plains, the Mississippi valley, and the Atlantic Coast. Along the way, he gives lively accounts of colorful, fascinating, and eye-opening stories that don’t make it into the average school version of history.

Had it ever occurred to me, for instance, to wonder about John Smith’s past? Before Jamestown, he seemed to reside in some undefined waiting-room in England, doing nothing until called to sail to America. Now I find out that he was a soldier of fortune whose adventures took him through Russia, Transylvania, and Turkey, including a stint as a slave in Constantinople and a pirate on the Barbary Coast.  Then there’s the remarkable story of Cabeza de Vaca, a Spaniard who was shipwrecked off the Gulf Coast and roamed for several years through the American southwest, living with the Native peoples he met along the way. When he finally found himself back among the Spanish, he was something of a misfit, more comfortable naked than clothed in stiff-necked doublets.  Why had I never heard of him?

The author tells the stories in a time-hopping way, matching the times long gone with his own modern journeys through the same landscape. (His account of his brief stint as a “conquistador” at a gathering of military re-enactors in Florida is surreal.) At first, these jumps between then and now seem to disrupt the narrative. But as the book goes along, the juxtapositions start to make sense. Traces of the past are still with us today, sometimes in unexpected ways. Why things turned out the way they are is a long story, and how it began isn’t irrelevant. In particular, the early encounters between cultures were varied and the possibilities more open than the straight-line inevitability of the eventual outcomes. Why did the story of Spaniards, English, Native Americans, and Africans turn out the way it did? Why didn’t we follow any one of the other possible courses that were open to us in the early years of this story?