Review of “A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World” by Tony Horwitz

When the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in 1620, they were greeted in English by the Indian Samoset, who asked them for a beer. Thus begins Tony Horwitz’s debunking of America’s foundational myths, along with the account of his own attempt to retrace the footsteps of the earliest explorers in the New World.


Like his book Confederates in the Attic, Horwitz blends historical revelations of the past with impressions from the present, the latter gained through a great deal of courage, audacity, and humor. And like the former book, Horwitz doesn’t make a complete survey of the period under study, but gives us a soupcon; just enough of a taste to interest us in finding out more on our own.

He starts at Plymouth Rock, and then takes a step backwards in time, to Norse explorers and then to Columbus, who, upon arriving at San Salvador, knelt and thanked God “who had requited them after a voyage so long and strange.” Columbus left with some souvenirs (i.e., natives) and began going back and forth between Spain and the Caribbean, always looking for riches. He never found them in the New World, but did manage to decimate the native population.

16th century depiction of Christopher Columbus landing in America. Theodore de Bry, Reisen in Occidentalischen Indien (Frankfurt, ca. 1590-1630). Copper plate engraving.

16th century depiction of Christopher Columbus landing in America. Theodore de Bry, Reisen in Occidentalischen Indien (Frankfurt, ca. 1590-1630). Copper plate engraving.

Other Spanish would-be conquerors in search of gold followed, and moved up into the American South and Southwest. Horowitz takes a car trip that follows the paths of Coronado and De Soto, and learns about the surprising areas explored by them as well as the cruelties they committed en route. He stops at Jamestown and Roanoke, and tells us what he learns about Sir Walter Raleigh, John Smith, and Pocahontas (not much of it resembling the stories currently promulgated. Pocahontas, for example, was only ten years old when John Smith arrived; it was John Rolfe she married, and not necessarily on a voluntary basis.)

Horwitz isn’t given to deep analysis; he devotes a sentence or two to the racism behind behaviors towards the Indians, and a few paragraphs to the importance of myths that retain their hold on people in spite of facts indicating otherwise. Americans don’t so much *study* history, he claims, as *shop* for it. “The past (is) a consumable, subject to the national preference for familiar products.”

But Horwitz still has fun, as do his readers, even while uncovering some bitter truths. If this results in more people becoming aware of more history, who can complain?

Published by Henry Holt and Co., 2008


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14 Responses to Review of “A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World” by Tony Horwitz

  1. Nymeth says:

    It upsets me that so many accounts of colonization still try to glorify it (at last in my country, but judging by your post from yesterday, not just). Even if the analysis isn’t in-depth, it sounds like this book at least avoids that.

  2. Jenny says:

    Excellent review & excellent book for the day after Columbus Day. 🙂

  3. Staci says:

    This sounds like a great way to start in on finding out the true historical times back then.

  4. Sandy says:

    Non-fiction, historical novels don’t usually trip my trigger, but I have a strange fascination with this time period. I absolutely loved the novel “Mayflower” by Nathanial Philbrick. And I recently listened to “The Wordy Shipmates” on audio that was a whole lot of fun learning about the Puritans through the cynical and sarcastic eyes of the author. I may have to chase this one down!

  5. This one sounds thought provoking but yet fun at the same time. It pairs nicely with yesterday’s post.

  6. Sandy and Margot,

    I wouldn’t put Tony Horwitz in the same category as other non-fiction books. He’s more of a humorist, who slips in facts on the side! It’s very pleasant to read him or listen to his tapes. I get the impression he and Sarah Vowell have a lot in common.

  7. Alyce says:

    Recognizing the truth from our history is so important, and the older I get the more I realize that countries tend to whitewash their past.

  8. bermudaonion says:

    What an interesting sounding book!

  9. Megan says:

    I’m fascinated by America’s “early days” — particularly the first settlements, Jamestown, etc. This definitely sounds like something I would enjoy! And I love that you mention we get a taste of everything but don’t get bogged down with too much detail… that’s a pet-peeve of mine! Of course, sometimes we want serious detail… but most of the time, I like being introduced to something and then given “free time” to explore on my own, haha. Great review!

  10. Jenners says:

    Just the stuff you mentioned makes me curious to learn more!

  11. Ti says:

    I’ll have you know that I actually bought this book TWICE. Yep, twice. I thought it was good the first time I heard about it so I bought it. After a week I promptly forgot about it and then bought it again at a used book sale. Only a week later!! I’m losing it. I still haven’t read it though. My bad

  12. Lisa says:

    Sounds interesting!

  13. diane says:

    Horowitz is a good writer. This one is now on my radar.

  14. softdrink says:

    I think this one is on my shelf. I know I have one of his books, and I think this is the one. I really need to keep better track!

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