Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Long and Short of a Voyage Long and Strange: A Review

Few non-fiction books hold my attention like those of Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and amateur historian. In 1998, Horwitz published Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, an incredibly funny and thought provoking look into how the American South memorializes the Civil War. I have twice required students to read this book, and I have found it to be an excellent text for use in college writing courses. Despite my preference for fiction--and extreme dislike for most contemporary travel memoirs--I have become a fan of Horwitz and his quirky interest in forgotten America.

Horwitz's most recent book, A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, hit bookshelves earlier this year. In this book, Horwitz takes readers through the back roads of America, following the paths of the early Europeans who first explored what would become the United States. His voyage begins in Newfoundland and ends in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Along the way, he visits Columbus sites in the Dominican Republic, Coronado sites in the American Southwest, and De Soto sites in the South. He also travels to Jacksonville and St. Augustine, Florida, where the Spanish and French established settlements, as well as Roanoke, North Carolina and Jamestown, Virginia, where the English got their New World start. Like Confederates in the Attic, Horwitz takes the time to talk to colorful locals (and locos for that matter) about their regional history and its effect on their daily lives. For the most part, he encounters few people who have much to say about these early explorers, which only serves to strengthen his argument that Americans memory of the past relies more on myth than fact--if it relies on anything at all.

The strength of this book, like all of Horwitz's books, is the storytelling. Horwitz has a knack for telling entertaining stories about his adventures in backwoods America and its people. During his trip to Newfoundland, for example, Horwitz strips down to his Gap briefs in order to participate it a Native American "Sweat" that nearly cooks him alive. Later, in Mississippi, he hires an aging "river rat" to take him across the dangerous Mississippi River in a homemade canoe in order to feel what it was like for Hernando De Soto to cross the river on a flimsy raft. However, his most bizarre experience is when he attends a pageant put on by an evangelical church in Jacksonville, Florida. In the pageant, children from the congregation recreate the New World massacre of a hundred or so French Protestant settlers at the hands of Spanish Catholics. Strange indeed.

Unfortunately, A Voyage Long and Strange has no Robert Lee Hodge, Horwitz's Civil War reenactor sidekick from Confederates in the Attic, to liven things up. Horwitz's only real sidekick in this book, in fact, is Caonabo, who serves as his translator and guide in the Dominican Republic. Like Hodge, Caonabo is sarcastic and more than a little socially uncouth, but he ultimately lacks Hodge's charm and homespun philosophy. One also senses a tension between Horwitz and Caonabo that interferes with the fun of their crazy roadtrip across Hispanola.

Also, A Voyage Long and Strange ultimately fails to deliver the same kind of satisfaction one gets at the end of Confederates in the Attic. One reason, perhaps, for this failure is Horwitz's over-reliance on his historical research. Throughout the book, Horwitz parallels his account of his modern-day journey with those of the explorers he is following. While the historical material is interesting--an even necessary for our understanding of the significance of his journey--it often takes center stage in his narrative. Personally, I would have like to have seen him explore how the history of these historical events is remembered today--in movies, pageants, historical and living history parks, novels, textbooks, and popular music. Horwitz, however, rarely finds time to do this. True, he does visit his fair share of national and state parks--but his accounts of these visits rarely provide the kind of analysis we saw in, say, his account of his trip to Andersonville National Memorial in Confederate in the Attic.

Horwitz also spends too little time on English settlement in the New World. Compared to his lengthy examination of Spanish conquest and exploration, his look at Roanoke, Jamestown, and Plymouth reads like a brochure. I find this this aspect of the book most disappointing. While American memory is cloudy when it comes to Coronado and De Soto, I am sure plenty of people have something to say about Pocahontas and the Pilgrims. Why he didn't look into the cultural implications of such things as Disney's Pocahontas and Roanoke's The Lost Colony outdoor drama, not to mention the living history park at Plymouth Plantation, is beyond me.

Overall, though, A Voyage Long and Strange is an entertaining read. While it lacks the depth of Confederates in the Attic, it nevertheless manages to keep the reader engaged until the last page. Would I recommend it? Yes, for the casual reader. I won't be using it in the classroom, though. Voyage says a lot about the past, but not enough about the past's effect on the present--or the present's effect on the past. In short, the book reads like a fun roadtrip across America. Be ready to see a lot of sights...just don't expect to reflect on them too much.


  1. I actually think that I might enjoy either one of these books.

  2. I'm always looking for new books to read. I'll try the first and maybe even read the second if his storytelling skills are good.

  3. I'm in the middle of reading this one myself. I've just gotten to his chapter on De Soto in the South, but so far I've been enjoying the way he alternates between the history and his own travel adventures. But we'll see how I like when I get to the settlement chapters. All in all, so far so good.

    I haven't read "Confederates in the Attic" but if the second half of this book doesn't disappoint too much, I just might.