Trails of Tears

Reviewed by Nina Burleigh
Sunday, May 4, 2008


Rediscovering the New World

By Tony Horwitz

Henry Holt. 445 pp. $27.50

Travel journalism is a lot like traveling salesmanship -- lots of windshield time, bad food and people who really don't want to talk to you. Tony Horwitz gamely forges on, without a limo or tour guide waiting at the airport. He rents his own cars and drives himself to the nearest saloon or hardware store in search of a loquacious local, who then becomes the reader's tour guide as well. For Horwitz, this serendipitous working style means subjecting himself to the vicissitudes of Third World car rental and roadside diner food, the boredom of the American highway and the torments of thin-walled motels. For readers, it unearths some gems.

Horwitz attacks an unwieldy subject, the pre-Mayflower explorers of the New World, by visiting the modern locations where his subjects actually walked, fought and sometimes died. The geographical and topical canvas is vast and the narrative jumpy. He follows his explorers in roughly chronological order, leaping through and over and around whole swathes of time and peoples. His protagonists are the Vikings, Columbus, Coronado, De Soto, Ponce de León and then briefly the British explorers Sir Walter Raleigh and Capt. John Smith. In a note on sources, Horwitz, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and author of the bestselling Confederates in the Attic, explains that he chose these men because of his "reporter's love of paper trails" -- in other words, the myriad other explorers, whom he ignores, didn't take notes. He tells us he embarked on this vast, diffuse trek to fill in the blanks in his own historical education -- although as a motivating force this excuse seems rather limp in comparison to his need to have a book idea.

Horwitz traveled from Newfoundland to the Dominican Republic, throughout the American South and Southwest and up to New England, vastly different zones once equally uncharted, now distinct and unrelated. On the road, he spent part of his time reading historical books informing him of what happened in these spots, and then part of his time seeking out guides who led him to the sites, or shared the local lore as it has been handed down through the centuries. He has an ear for a good yarn and an instinct for the trail leading to an entertaining anecdote, and he deftly weaves his reportorial finds with his historical material.

Hunting Columbus's bones in the steaming Dominican Republic, he stumbles into the largest, emptiest museum he's ever entered, beneath a monstrous, cross-shaped, unlit lighthouse (the impoverished country can't pay the electric bill) meant to commemorate Columbus. Inside, there's a room dedicated to and decorated by each nation. China put up Ming vases, Russia sent nesting dolls, but the United States -- corn? Airplanes? No. The most powerful nation on Earth devoted its wall space to photographs and headlines of 9/11. Horwitz is filled with "mortification," he writes. "In a venue designed to promote global amity and understanding, the United States chose to emphasize how divided and troubled the world remained."

The book is packed with unexpected observations of that ilk and odd characters -- taciturn, talkative, vaguely threatening, helpful, funny, dour, none of the above. Horwitz's quixotic quest for historical information led him to obscure state parks and landmarks as he searched for graves and bones. He found an infested swamp in backwoods Florida where conquistador De Soto erased an entire Indian tribe. He traveled to a slag heap of rocks in a permanently frozen spit of land in Canada where the Vikings settled briefly back in the dark ages. He was summoned into a pointless interview with a dignitary at the precise moment when Columbus's bones were being briefly revealed and, to his fury, missed the spectacle. Seeking verisimilitude, he donned suits of armor, sat in sweat lodges and attempted to get lost (as the Spaniards did) in a re-grown patch of tall Kansas prairie grass.

Inevitably, Horwitz confronts the dark under-history of European exploration -- the slaughter of the aboriginal Americans. At first, they are just pinpricks of blood in his telling -- a vanished tribe in Canada, another erased in the Caribbean. Then he goes mainland with the conquistadors, and the stain spreads until it becomes the red backdrop to the entire book, a story of murder, torture, treachery and enslavement that wiped millions of people from the face of the Earth.

Because the book is styled as a lighthearted personal and historical adventure, the reader ultimately staggers into a kind of moral disorientation. Ever the detached observer, he intersperses accounts of Coronado and De Soto slaughtering or enslaving hospitable Indians from Arizona to Florida with amusing tales of encounters with modern-day barflies and park rangers within miles of what must be mass graves.

Driving across America -- he logged a circuitous 3,000 miles in the South and West alone -- Horwitz muses on the paradisiacal visions that drove 16th-century Europeans through mosquito jungles and waterless desert: "This willfulness spoke to a late-medieval imagination that I couldn't wrap my modern mind around. Seven Cities of Gold, the Isle of the Amazons, El Dorado -- these weren't wild fantasies to the Spanish, they were vivid realities, just waiting to be found."

In the end, this romp through the 16th century will be an amusing addition to a summer beach bag, although one wishes Horwitz had expressed his own mission as succinctly as he does his subjects'. ·

Nina Burleigh is the author of "Mirage: Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt" and the forthcoming "Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land."

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