A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World

There were 110 years between Columbus’ 1492 voyage and the pilgrims’ arrival… what happened in between?

That question stumped author Tony Horwitz, college history major, as he visited the touristy Plymouth Rock site and realized our popular history is missing about a century long chapter.

So there’s the simple premise of the book, digging into that time period with a combination of research and firsthand travel.

I’ve never read Horwitz before (Blue Latitudes,Confederates in the Attic, Baghdad Without a Map, One for the Road) but was hooked into this book by this interesting focus. The easy tone and style of the short introduction gave me the sense that Horwitz would take me alongside as a friend on a pleasant, humorous journey.

Maybe that’s the fun of this sort of nonfiction, making the journey of discovery together as novices, rather than being spoken down to by all knowing academic texts. If I sound a bit defensive, it’s true– my lack of formal history study has bothered me as an oversight of my education. Ha! Well, this history-degreed author knows nothing more than I do! It’s a good feeling to start a book with.

Picked up secondhand, had been sitting on my bookshelf… waiting to be discovered.

No better way to start a book, is there?! A beautiful map across the fold

I studied the map at length, really letting TH’s premise set in. Of course these names are somewhat familiar (I even taught a similar map to 8th grade students!) but what do I really know about these early European Explorers? What about the European mindset and events of this time period? A blur. I’m certainly fascinated by the major overland routes of De Coronado and De Vaca.

Part 1: Discovery

A lot going on here! Are those deer aboard the ship? What exactly are the European wizards offering… a bejeweled chalice? What are the emotions of the indigenous group? Okay, yes, we’re talking about an artist’s rendition… but this is an interesting artifact of FIRST CONTACT (FYI, that’s the best Star Trek movie, IMHO). How did European’s react to this news back from Columbus? 

Chpt 1: Before Columbus, be there Vikings

The author begins the book proper by taking a road trip across Newfoundland to the viking settlement and Parks Canada National Park at L’Anse aux Meadows. This now extremely remote and little populated fishing village was the first confirmed archeological site of pre-Columbus European SETTLEMENT. Not just a visit or drive by, the vikings set up shop and spent some time battling the indigenous inhabitants before deciding the natives were a bit too dangerous.

TH spends a week in the fishing village visiting with the locals, many of whom have worked as Viking living-history actors at the park. As the fishing industry became less lucrative, the Canadian government sponsored programs to retrain these remote fishermen as historic reenactors… which led to unemployed fishermen becoming unemployed actors!

The Norse history here is brief, half bloody, half domestic, and quite interesting.

Viking history is mixed with conversations with the charming locals. A highpoint of this chapter, it portrays a slice of life pretty removed from the modern world.

Takeaway point: The Brutal Vikings Retreated Because the Natives Were Too Much of an Ongoing Threat.

The Vikings called them the derogatory “Skraelings,” but in lore, the local inhabitants mounted fierce attacks from hide-stretched canoes (including catapults) that eventually drove them back to Greenland where their colony eventually perished.

Curious about the native history, and decedents, TH heads south through bug-infested mainland to a POWWOW at the 500+ mile distant Micmac reservation. Comic mishaps ensue as he gets a little too involved (perhaps) with the ceremonies and local cuisine, before heading home and ending the chapter.

Excited to begin this book, it’s broken my reading drought

While I’m fatigued from writing this too-long entry (apologies!), I’m very excited to continue this Voyage with Horwitz (let’s call him TH, we’re on a road trip together after all, a nickname feels appropriate.) I certainly feel the thrill of travel to new places, conversation with locals (something I cherish in real life, but don’t have the opportunity for often), and with each page… I feel a lightness in my chest as my guilt-about-lack-of-history-knowledge is at least temporarily relieved with new (old) knowledge.

“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it”

That quote above my 7th grade history teacher’s blackboard has always stuck with me. I’m excited to see how filling in the gap of this forgotten century rounds out my knowledge and opens new doors.


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