Friday, February 19, 2010

A Blog Post Long and Strange

I have finally finished a book I wanted to read for more than a year: A Voyage Long and Strange, by Tony Horwitz. It covers the history of North America from the landing of the Vikings in Newfoundland around the year 1000 to the establishment of Plymouth in 1620. What made me want to read it was a review in which it was mentioned that Spanish conquistadors got as far into the continent as Kansas. Kansas! That was a new mental image for me and I was curious what else I did not know about the settling of this continent. Also it has a great cover design.

The book is a mix of diverting historical anecdotes and diverting modern anecdotes. Horwitz talks to a lot of people about what they believe their history is and how they feel about it. Park rangers and museum interpreters are usually sane and therefore full of sarcasm about local residents and tourists, who are not interested in a nuanced view of history -- people who still think the Fountain of Youth might exist. The general theme is that there are two categories of history: (1) what actually happened as far as anyone can tell, and (2) the convoluted, often selective, and sometimes plain wrong interpretation of those facts that suits any particular group.

Although the book itself does not impugn our educational system, the marketing for the book, and some of its reviewers, do suggest that everything you were taught about American history is wrong. My entire knowledge of North America from 1000 to 1620 comes from my eighth grade history textbook, which I happen to have next to me right now, because my mother owns it. (Bet you wish your mom was a tutor so you could do awesome blog posts about your eighth grade education! Ha!) I was curious to see whether I had been taught the simplistic version of history, in which Columbus nobly sails the ocean blue, Pocahontas saves John Smith, and the colonists and Native Americans join together for a happy Thanksgiving; or the complicated one, in which Columbus is a first class jerk, Pocahontas goes over to the dark side, and one day ninety Native Americans show up to a colonial feast, uninvited.

Well! Maybe Tony Horwitz had a crappy eighth grade textbook, but mine was a masterpiece! The reason I don't know anything about what happened between Columbus and the Pilgrims is simply that I clean forgot it all, not that I was never told. Every person Horwitz says has been forgotten by history is in this textbook, right down to Estovico, a Moroccan slave who served as an interpreter between the conquistadors and Native Americans, and whom I would have sworn I'd never heard of in my life. The only major detail it's a little spotty on is the degree of violence to which everyone was propelled. Europeans massacred Native Americans, Native Americans massacred Europeans, Europeans massacred each other, Native Americans massacred each other, heads were put on spikes, eyeballs were used as projectiles, and a colonist during the "Starving Time" at Jamestown killed and ate his pregnant wife. I really can't blame the textbook writers for leaving that out. I'm not sure I'm ready to deal with that last one even now.

Not only does this textbook mention all the "forgotten" historical figures, it justly ignores things that don't deserve attention, like Plymouth Rock. According to Horwitz, the idea that the pilgrims somehow first stepped on that one rock comes from someone's childhood memory of an old man weeping over his own recollection of his father telling him a story he had heard second-hand. For all we know, some dope once told his little brother quesadillas come from quasars, and after a hundred years of the game of telephone, we got a famous rock.

So the textbook is astonishingly well-done; why then did I forget everything I ever read in it? I will tell you. It is because of the distinct lack of diverting anecdotes. Here are some things I would have remembered:

1. What Columbus thought was the native name for San Salvador probably meant "iguana." Speaking of iguana, he thought it tasted like chicken.

2. After being abandoned by the ship he came on, Cabeza de Vaca and a few others spent eight years wandering over half the continent, helped and harbored by Native Americans on many occasions. Later, as the governor of Paraguay, he tried to enforce laws to protect them. He was arrested and sent back to Spain and nearly ended up in a penal colony for it.

3. Spanish conquistadors were required, before attacking Native Americans, to read the "Requerimiento," which essentially said, "If you do not submit to us, we will kill you, enslave you, or otherwise make you miserable, and it will be your own fault." It was typically read out of earshot, to people who could not understand the language anyway. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican priest, said at the time that he didn't know whether to laugh or to cry about it.

4. Some of Coronado's men discovered the Grand Canyon. Underestimating its size, they attempted to climb down into it. They did not succeed.

5. One Spaniard told the Native Americans that he had come from the sun. According to him, they then "took corn and other seeds in their mouths and sprayed me with them, saying that was the kind of offering they made to the sun."

6. Soldiers who went out hunting the flat grassland of the midwest sometimes got lost and never returned, even though their companions tried to draw them back with noise and bonfires.

7. The Spanish had never seen buffalo before. One wrote, "No one could be so melancholy that if he were to see it a hundred times a day he could keep from laughing heartily as many times."

8. William Brewster spelled Europe "Ewroopa." Haha.

9. Squanto (short for Tisquantum), without whose help the colonists at Plymouth probably would have starved to death, was only able to help because he had been kidnapped five years earlier and spent the intervening time in Europe, where he learned English. When he eventually escaped and went home, he found that his entire tribe had been killed off by disease.

Admittedly, these are not all diverting in a nice way (and nor are they all technically anecdotes, come to think of it). Obviously, this book is pretty depressing from any angle. The Native Americans suffered, the explorers suffered, and the early settlers suffered. I don't really know what to make of it. I don't think Tony Horwitz figured out what to make of it, either, as he ended with a baseball analogy and a quote from Stephen Jay Gould about the "psychic need for an indigenous creation myth." But that's the thing. Few of us are indigenous. If you go back far enough, nobody is permanently indigenous to any piece of land. If we want a creation myth that somehow gives us a right to be here, we're not going to find one without convoluting selected facts until our collective memory is all wrong. In spite of the best efforts of eighth-grade textbooks, we seem to be well on our way.


Pandora said...

Though I suppose it's not the case, I can't help but imagine those "lost" soldiers back from the hunt hiding in the tall grass a few hundred yards away from camp while their companions make idiots of themselves banging on pots and pans and building great bonfires into the dark of night. Meanwhile, their buddies are just lying on their stomachs trying not to bust out laughing.

megan said...

I just got this book!

(That is all.)