three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
By: 
Tony Horwitz
user_rating: 
0

A-A Voyage Long and Strange.epsPulitzer Prize–winning journalist Tony Horwitz has a reputation for humorous, informative travelogues, including Confederates in the Attic, which looks at the Civil War’s continuing influence on contemporary America, and Blue Latitudes ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2003), a retracing of Captain James Cook’s travels in the South Pacific. Think Bill Bryson meets Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The Topic: This peripatetic romp explodes the myths of the founding and the settling of the New World. Horwitz alternates his own experiences on the road—from the "Disneyfication" of St. Augustine, Florida, America’s oldest European settlement, to a bizarre museum in the Dominican Republic dedicated to Christopher Columbus, to modern-day Plymouth Rock, and many points between—with history lessons. Such lessons set the record straight on figures including Columbus (who, Horwitz points out, didn’t even think the world was round), Vasco de Gama, Hernando de Soto (the most brutal of a poorly behaved bunch), Ponce de León, John Smith, and other well-known explorers whose legacies blur with the passage of time (or were deliberately revised). In the end, Horwitz considers the connection between history and myth.
Holt. 464 pages. $27.50. ISBN: 0805076034

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Despite his grit and journalistic skills, and the fascinating anecdotes [Horwitz] unearths, about two-thirds of the way through the book a certain monotony sets in. … A Voyage Long and Strange—disturbing, honest, wonderfully written, and heroically researched—should be required reading in every high school in the land." Roland Merullo

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Horwitz … skillfully combines history and travel in this entertaining, insightful account of his road trip into America’s past. … What Horwitz discovers as he travels takes much of the sheen off the events glorified in our grammar school history books." Chuck Leddy

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Horwitz’s charm, smarts, impeccable research and curiosity make this a voyage worth taking. Gentle and funny, he manages to tell us just how astoundingly ignorant we are without chiding us at all." Anne Trubek

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"Horwitz tracks down everything he and most of the rest of us didn’t know or had gotten wrong about North American history. … More than the historical revelations, the chief attraction of his book lies in armchair-traveling with a personable, entertaining companion." Roger K. Miller

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Dense but digestible, it may be just the antidote for those of us who have clung helplessly to our shaky third-grade memories." Charles Gershman

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"We are three generations, maybe more, into an era in which the once-cheeky assertions of historical revisionism … have become utterly conventional, the refuge of grad-school plodders and boomer journalists alike. An inheritor and practitioner of this fraying tradition, Horwitz tries, to his credit, to complicate the picture, just a little." Andrew Ferguson

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"As Horwitz travels from sea to shining sea in search of historical truth, his prose varies from uplifting to sluggish. Only a true history buff will devote the effort needed to see it through." Mike Pearson

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"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." Nina Burleigh

Critical Summary

Horwitz has a knack for insightful, quirky, topical treatments of his subjects, and A Voyage Long and Strange is vintage stuff, recalling the pace and the scope of Horwitz’s earlier books and reaffirming that the author has never met a character or a situation that he couldn’t transform into an engaging story (witness tales of a visit to a sweat lodge in Newfoundland and a weapons reenactment reminiscent of a scene from Confederates in the Attic). Though critics find Horwitz entertaining, several comment on his scattershot approach to history and his shopworn revisionist stories (the Pilgrims didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving quite like we do today, for instance). Still, Horwitz’s message—that Americans cling too rigidly to the myths of their country’s founding—is delivered with more than a little sugar and is certainly worth considering.