Tony Horwitz rediscovers the thrill of discovery... again.
A Contrary review by Laura M. Browning

Tony Horwitz might be accused of relying on a gimmick. Many of his books find him retracing history’s path, following in the wake of Captain Cook (Blue Latitudes) or buttoning on a period uniform and crossing a Civil War battlefield (Confederates in the Attic). In A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, Horwitz retraces the heavy footsteps of Vikings and conquistadores, clanks about in 16th-century Spanish armor, drinks from the Fountain of Youth, and travels from Newfoundland to Jamestown to the Dominican Republic.  

But this trick never gets old, and Horwitz never runs out of history to revisit. Obviously well-researched (if the book itself doesn’t convince you, the extensive “Notes on Sources” appendix will) but also open-minded, Horwitz consults renowned historians and obsessive seekers of Roanoke’s lost colony, culturally introverted Zuni and the protectors of Christopher Columbus’s alleged remains. He embarks on his own long and strange journey, starting in Newfoundland in 985 A.D. and seeking the centuries lost between the Vikings’ settlement at Vinland, Columbus’ oft-glorified Caribbean landing in 1492, and the European settlements at Jamestown and Roanoke. Horwitz’s curiosity grew out of a casual trip to Plymouth Rock—he drove there while listening to a Red Sox game on the radio, exiting the highway when the game ended—when he realized how little he knew about the European discovery and settlement of America. 

“As for dates,” he says, “I’d mislaid an entire century, the one separating Columbus’s sail in 1492 from Jamestown’s founding in 16-0-something. Maybe nothing happened in between. Still, it was distressing not to know. Expensively educated at a private school and university—a history major, no less!—I’d matriculated to middle age with a third grader’s grasp of early America.”

Horwitz means it when he says it’s distressing not to know, and that’s why his journey works. It’s as much about plumbing the depths of his own curiosity as it is bridging the gaps in his history degree, and his particular talent of befriending, and gaining the confidence of, nearly every person he meets, makes this a robust Voyage. He brings humor to potential cultural minefields, laughing at himself instead of the people—some of them quite eccentric—he befriends. 

A large part of Voyage retraces the Spanish conquistadores and other explorers who ravaged nearly half the U.S. continent with no regard for the tremendous Native American losses, both material and cultural, they left in their wake. It’s culturally sensitive ground at best, but Horwitz doesn’t falter. He finds an appreciation for conquistadores, donning a replica of the 50-pound steel armor that Hernando DeSoto’s men wore as they slogged through Floridian swampland. And he interviews people like Melanie Wright, a woman of Creek descent who works as a historic interpreter at Jamestown and Henricus, capturing her humor and frustration: 

“For all Melanie’s irreverence, though, there was one thing she couldn’t abide: visitors who asked, as they often did, ‘Are you a real Indian?’

“ ‘I tell them, ‘No, I’m completely plastic.’ If I say yes, then they always ask if I’m a ‘full-blood.’ I feel like telling them, ‘No, I donated a pint last week so I’m a little short right now.’ “

And Horwitz even finds a parallel between his search for America’s rediscovery and that Red Sox game that brought him fortuitously to Plymouth Rock. Baseball is often, and incorrectly, given a romantic creation story—and Horwitz finds that “as with baseball, so, too, with America’s birth.” 

Laura M. Browning is a senior conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy in Chicago.

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A Voyage Long and Strange

Tony Horwitz

2008, Holt

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