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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Land So Strange by Andres Resendez~★★★★1/2

Author: Andres Resendez
Title: A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca
Release Date: November 12th, 2007
Publisher: Basic Books
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Jacket: "In 1528, five ships set out from Spain to colonize Florida. But the expedition went horribly wrong. It was first delayed by a hurricane and knocked off course by a colossal error of navigation. But the worst came when the expedition leader tragically decided to send a band of three hundred men into the interior, thus separating them from the ships. The mission soon turned into a desperate journey of survival.
The explorers who headed inland quickly lost their way in native North America. Some were killed by Indians and others died of disease during their horrific march through Florida. As their numbers dwindled, the survivors risked everything to escape. Crafting makeshift rafts out of logs tied together with the hair of their own sacrificed horses, they endured a harrowing raft passenge in the Gulf of Mexico. Those who survived were the unlucky ones: stranded without weapons, they were subjected to six years of enslavement by the indigenous inhabitants of the coast of Texas.
In the end, only four survived---three Spaniards and an African slave. They suffered greatly but in the process also gained an understanding of the societies in which they lived, and shrewdly used this knowledge to escape from enslavement and recast themselves as medicine men. Amazed by the strange appearance and mystifying religious practices of the castaways, several indigenous groups came to believe that the three Spaniards and the African possessed supernatural powers. As the four survivors made their way to the Pacific coast, various native tribes protected and guided them. Ironically, this extraordinary journey came to an abrupt end when the castaways ran into a group of Spanish slavers traveling north from Mexico. This encounter set the stage for a final showdown between the medicine men who had become the protectors of the Indians and the slavers bent on subjugating them.
The castaways were the first outsiders ever to explore the interior of the North American continent, they were forever changed by their experience. In the course of their odyssey they lived with a variety of nomadic Indians and learned half a dozen indigenous languages. They saw lands, peoples, plants, and animals that no outsider had ever seen before.
In A Land So Strange, historian Andres Resendez brings to life four extraordinary explorers and the vast and dynamic continent they witnessed just before European settlers would transform it forever."

Taryn's Review: A few years back I took a Colonial Latin American history course in college and I was completely awed by this section of history that I knew nothing about. My interest has not waned and I was excited when I pulled this book off of the shelf in the library. I knew nothing of Cabeza de Vaca going into the reading.

The story of Narvaez's ill-fated expedition that Cabeza de Vaca joined is one that will definitely stay with you. The horrors these people experienced are something of fictional proportions. After landing way off-course, Cabeza de Vaca along with many others walked a northward trail in Florida, a place they have never been before and were completely unfamiliar with. This alone astounded me, and then to add to my surprise, the men later built five rafts after reaching northern Florida and floated along the coast of the United States all the way to Texas. Many men were lost during this dangerous part of the journey.

After the five rafts landed in different places in Texas, some men were killed immediately by natives and many more succumbed to disease. Again, I was shocked while reading this. These men had gone through so much! After a while, the remaining four men were enslaved among the natives...for years. Finally the men devised an escape plan. At one point during their escape, Resendez pointed out that the men were 90-120 miles away from Spanish settlements, but the Spanish travelers became revered for being medicine men among the natives and began to travel westward.

Nine years after the men's escape from native enslavement, the men from the expedition encountered a horrific Spaniard named Guzman, who saw the Indians as nothing more than income property.  Cabeza and the other 3 men had since viewed the natives in a new light and wished to settle North America as a peaceful utopian world between the natives and Europeans.

Cabeza de Vaca spent much of the rest of his life trying to make his dream happen. However, the European mindset of conquering all dominated the men around Cabeza and he eventually retired back to his hometown in Spain. The ideas he believed in after living among the natives for nine years are to be admired, although we all know that unfortunately, that is not the way settlement progressed in the United States.

Resendez did a great job making the book incredibly readable, all the while using primary sources and listing endnotes to cite his sources. Some historians tend to bog down books by using a vocabulary that is unnecessarily difficult. Resendez used a strong vocabulary and he still managed to avoid making the book heavier than what it needed to be. There are few grammatical errors in the book (thus the 1/2 star), but overall this is the type of history book that leaves you in awe of the human spirit and the survival skills of the people from the past.

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