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Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
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The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca

A-A Land So StrangeWhen a Spanish expedition embarked for the coast of Florida in 1527, the 600 men who undertook the journey had adventure on their minds. After trials on land and sea—desertion, gross incompetence, skirmishes with hostile Indians, cannibalism, disease, starvation, drowning, and long-distance treks over inhospitable terrain—only four men remained. In A Land So Strange, historian Andrés Reséndez relates the account—unbelievable in many of the details, if it weren’t for corroborating evidence—of explorer Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions. By the time they had crossed North America and sighted the Pacific Ocean on the western coast of Mexico, the group’s number had swelled to thousands, including native peoples who treated the men as gods "in a land so strange," de Vaca wrote, "that it seemed impossible to be in it or to escape from it."
Basic. 314 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0465068405

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"When you read a wonderful book, you can’t stop talking about it, and so this past week I’ve been going on and on to friends about a terrific story. … [A Land So Strange] reads like the most gruesome pulp magazine story, so full of mishap and mad misadventure that, as I went on and on about it to friends, invariably they’d say, ‘Wait! Is this fiction or nonfiction?’" Carolyn See

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"[Reséndez] provides a clear background of the politics of the Spanish Conquest, then spins a yarn of unimaginable hardship and a testament to endurance that elicits head-shaking disbelief on almost every page. … [This] new interpretation is well-informed, well-written, well-researched and well-suited to providing a new perspective on one of the oldest of American stories." Clay Reynolds

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[The author’s] analysis is overcautious: What might have happened fills more pages than what did happen. … Reséndez’s graceful tale of four men who came to accept a new land on its own terms is itself a marvel to behold." Barbara Liss

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"A confident storyteller, Résendez summarizes when he should and lingers in just the right places. … But what’s ultimately most striking about A Land So Strange is not the author’s style nor the impressive scope of his research, but—as perhaps it should be—the compelling story itself." Charles Gershman

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"This is a voraciously readable and incredible tale of the journey of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, two of his comrades, and one African slave from Seville to Cuba, from a disastrous expedition into the coastal horrors of Florida across the Southwest and south into Mexico, from 1528 to 1536. … [A Land So Strange] is must and wonderful reading for anyone interested in our mutual histories at a time when Europeans came upon a new world and found themselves irrevocably transformed." Sam Coale

Critical Summary

In A Land So Strange, University of California, Davis, history professor Andrés Reséndez relates this improbable tale with dynamic grace (Carolyn See of the Washington Post compares the book to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Moby-Dick). The author combines sound research—including more than 70 pages of footnotes and resources for additional study—with a pulp writer’s eye for the compelling detail. The author’s tale makes sense of La Relación, Cabeza de Vaca’s own account of his ordeal written after his return to Spain. The Dallas Morning News also points out the author’s deft interpretation of the text, which is "written in a literary style peculiar to 16th-century Spain and sensitive to the vagaries of the Inquisition." A must-read for anyone interested in the early history of European exploration in North America—or in real-life adventure, compellingly told.