Book Review: A Voyage Long and StrangeAugust 8th, 2022
I was more skeptical, and less excited when I sat down to read A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horowitz than with other books I've picked up recently. It's difficult to say why. It could have possibly been the thought of hearing vague stories about Vikings or conquistadors isn't a topic I'm interested in these days. However, Horowitz was able to show his ability to write descriptively but not without taste. He demonstrated his curiosity and sociability as a writer investigating a complex topic. Finally, he connected past with present making his journey relatable.
Furthermore, it was predictable, that the author would return to Plymouth Rock, where he started his journey searching for the start of America, only to look upon Plymouth with new eyes: it was cliché, actually. The hero of the story returns from his epic only to discover that home hasn't changed—he has changed.
Nevertheless, I loved the cliché all the more. My thirst for the culmination of the quest was quenched—like how in the movies the good guy always wins; gets the girl; order is restored.
I envied Horowitz's ability to effortlessly describe scenes. This quality carried over to his description of people and things:
"Up close, what seemed most comical was the buffalo's front-loaded physique. Its weight and reddish-brown hair bunch around the shoulders and neck, with the torso tapering down to an improbably small bottom and skinny, piglike tail. The huge head is so shaggy that the wool almost covers the buffalo's horns and small, sleepy eyes. And the legs, particularly the short, small-hoofed forelegs, look much too delicate to support so much bulk."
Unfortunately, this isn't even the best example! This is just one that I could find quickly.
Relatable & Interesting
His journey to understand early America is shared with my lack of knowledge of early America. For example, it's oddly intriguing that we don't know where exactly Columbus landed. Or, that Amerigo Vespucci never made it to South or North America. How fun it was to appear to learn these facts along with the author.
He traveled to Central and North America with a relatable naivete but asked questions, met interesting people, and brought old facts to light.
He took historical accounts from the 16th and 17th centuries and compared those same places to what the places are like now, and who the people are that live there. It was a cleverly constructed bridge connecting the past with the present.
Horowitz has a knack for ending chapters or sections with a quote that brings a resounding sentiment to a scene or chapter. Whether the person he is talking to is in the Dominican Republic, Kansas, Florida, etc.
It's a cinematic way to write.
Furthermore, adding to the previous section, his comparison of the place now with the place then is a fantastic way to tell the story.
I loved his adventures in the Dominican Republic. He could have spent an entire book talking about the West Indies.
Dan Carlin, the creator of the Hardcore History podcast, recently released a single podcast on the early history of Haiti and the DR. It's an intense recounting from Columbus landing all the way up to and through the Haitian Revolution, and it pairs quite well with this part of the book.
Also, the religious debates and claims to the start of America that exist to this day in many of these places are certainly not trivial to the people living in those locations! Some of the stories about Roanoke, the Huguenots, and Hernando de Soto, aren't the ones that have thrived in the hearts and minds of Americans. Yet, they fit in the book and keep me reading on searching for the next piece of American soil that has a story to tell.
In reality, the most important part of the book is America today.
In Our Present Times
The 1619 Project
I heard about this book listening to Saagar Enjeti on The Realignment podcast. I couldn't remember what Sagaar was talking about when he brought the book up until I got close to the end of reading it. Then, I remembered—he was discussing the 1619 Project!
Per Wikipedia, the 1619 Project is, "[...] a long-form journalism endeavor developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, writers from The New York Times, and The New York Times Magazine which "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' national narrative."
The piece came under scrutiny after publication, per Wikipedia:
"In a December 2019 letter published in The New York Times, the historians Wood, McPherson, Wilentz, Bynum, and Oakes expressed "strong reservations" about the project and requested factual corrections, accusing the authors of a "displacement of historical understanding by ideology."
I found the 1619 Project's claims—and historical frame—comical after I recalled the connection between my impetus for reading the book and the new context the book provided me.
To explain, so many people in the places that Horowitz visited on his journey while researching the book claimed their stake in the lifeblood of America's history.
"Four centuries after the wedding of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, marrying
"out" was still a raw issue in southeast Virginia. The tobacco
Rolfe planted was mostly gone, but the plantation slavery its cultivation spawned had left three races still jostling with one another, over the
past as well as the present. Each person and group I'd encountered-
Richard Bowman, the Pamunkey, the Descendants of Ancient
Planters-was staking a claim to the same historic ground. As if to give
Woody Guthrie's famous song about America a new refrain:
"This land is my land."
I'd heard a similar chorus throughout my rambles; from Spanish
and Pueblo in New Mexico, Catholic and Protestant in Florida, black
and white and red and shades in between in North Carolina. When it
came to memory of the country's founding, Guthrie's ribbon of high-
way wound back to a land that was made by me."
It wasn't surprising that the writers of the 1619 Project would join this collection of groups because so many others have and will continue to use said claims to further their sense of Americanism, procure tourism, harden their identity, or further ideological beliefs.
Power of Myths (SPOILER ALERT)
This next section harkens back to Horowitz's ability to tell a great story. At the end of the book, he returns to Plymouth, a place that has become a faux start to America. Talking to a member of a group in Massachusetts that celebrates Forefather's Day, Horowitz was able to get to the bottom of his quest to discover why we remember Plymouth Pilgrims and not French Huguenots; why the focus of America's history isn't on atrocities committed by Spanish conquistadors or the imperial ambitions of Columbus; and, why the 1619 Project is a flawed endeavor.
"Gomes responded by telling me about his appearance, some years ago, in a television debate with the owner of Berkeley Plantation in Vir-
ginia. Not only had Jamestown preceded Plymouth, the Virginian observed; documents showed that in 1619, colonists landing at nearby Berkeley had designated their arrival date a day of annual thanksgiving. "This man was energetically anti-Yankee," Gomes recalled. "So I decided magnanimity was the best response. I said, Of course, the gentleman from Virginia is quite correct, But it doesn't matter. Ameri-
cans love us." I wasn't sure I followed his argument. "So you're saying we should honor myth rather than fact?" I asked. "Precisely," The reverend smiled benignly, as I imagined he might at a bewildered parishioner. "Myth is more important than history. History is arbitrary, a collection of facts. Myth we choose, we create, we perpetuate."
This book was published in 2008. But Horowitz's explanation, using Gomes, echoes louder in our present day. We reject some myths and raise others up.
Over the last few years, the history of America has come under a microscope, and so too has everyone in her history. This book was a refreshing trip, a decade in the past to a time when things weren't perfect, but they weren't crazy.
There is a lot that can be said about this topic, but maybe that's for another time.
To conclude, A Voyage Long and Strange is a thought-provoking, well-written, and generally entertaining book that I was lucky to come across and have the time to read.