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.
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