In this, his 12th novel, Oakley Hall fictionalizes the famous journey of Cabeza de Vaca and three companions through the American Southwest and Mexico in 1535-36, a saga extraordinary enough to deter any writer. Hall, undaunted, succeeds admirably in giving us a bold, bloody, and lustful tale, rigorously researched, and told with verve and panache. "The Children of the Sun" can stand comfortably with Hall's best, his critically celebrated "Warlock" (1958).
The epic 1,600-mile journey across mountain and desert has been known about since 1542 when de Vaca recounted it in "Naufragios" ("The Castaways"). The four who make the trek, remnants of a 400-man Spanish force shipwrecked on the Texas coast, include, besides de Vaca, Captain Andre's Dorantes, an outstanding soldier and bodyguard to Corte's when he defeated Montezuma, last of the Aztec rulers, in 1521; another captain, Alonso del Castillo; and Dorantes' Moorish servant, Estaban.
On the walk, de Vaca and Dorantes, through God's intercession, heal many natives, who come to call them "The Children of God" for their good works. Without the healing, they would never have made it to Mexico, not with Estaban's womanizing and Alonso's troublesome tendencies. En route, they hear of seven magic cities of tall buildings and precious stones farther north, and although disbelieving this, they pass the rumor on to the viceroy in Mexico. That worthy launches the last big Spanish expedition to the fabled cities and sends Dorantes along with Coronado's troops as chronicler.
The trek changes Dorantes' life. In flashbacks we see him raping, torturing and plundering as a bodyguard to Corte's during the conquest, able to rationalize his cruelty because of the sanguinary Aztec enemy. The Aztecs were defeated not so much by the Spaniards as by a coalition of neighboring tribes tired of being sacrificial victims. Once sacrificed they'd be cut up, mixed with peppers and squash, and stewed. The Spanish would burn you alive--they got good at it during the Inquisition--but they didn't eat their victims. After being God-fired on the trek, Dorantes finds greater similarities than differences in the two peoples--both religions had baptism, confession, fasting, and a celibate priesthood--and spends his energies urging better treatment for the natives.
R.B. Cunninghame Graham, the celebrated Scottish writer, wrote that it was impossible not to feel sorry for the wretched Mexicans; the Spaniards dropped on them as from another planet with weapons and horses they could oppose only with heroism. Add to this smallpox (which as late as 1779 killed 20 percent of the population of Mexico City), and the worst killer, typhus, and by 1650 there were only 1 million left of the 11 million natives there at the time of the Conquest.
Hall clears the spatial hurdle without rupture. His Spaniards reek of reality, alternately merciless and mild, vulgar and dignified, hating and loving. One breathes the Spain of Cervantes in his New World plunderers. The dialogue between Dorantes and his old comrades-in-arms crackles as they relive the old victories and occasional defeats ("An old soldier is one who ran when he was young") and he attempts to explain to them that the peaceful way is more powerful than the way of the warrior. His Indians, especially as he depicts them on the trek, exude the authenticity of that frenetic time.
Hall's novel is faithful to the original accounts. His prose moves, though he has a tendency to overwrite and lacks the restraint that lies just this side of art. While avoiding cliche's, he is sometimes lazy with words (for instance he seems obsessed with "obsidian" and uses it a dozen times; in four pages he has knife, teeth, and eyes, all obsidian). But on its own terms as a sprawling saga with little sag, this is an enjoyable reading adventure for a long summer afternoon.