'A Voyage Long and Strange' by Tony Horowitz

'New World' an old story by the time Columbus got here

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It is not true that Christopher Columbus defied the conventional wisdom of his time in thinking the world was round.

All the wise people of his time knew it was. Columbus thought it had the shape of a pear, complete with a stalk "like a woman's nipple," which was the site of the Garden of Eden.

Historical nuggets such as that are salted throughout Tony Horwitz's latest delightful foray into sensible-shoes adventuring.

   
"A VOYAGE LONG AND STRANGE: REDISCOVERING THE NEW WORLD"

By Tony Horowitz
Holt ($27.50)

   

A Pulitzer-winning journalist and author of "Confederates in the Attic" and "Blue Latitudes," Horwitz tracks down everything he and most of the rest of us didn't know or had gotten wrong about North American history.

Visiting Plymouth Rock, Horwitz began musing about American history and realized, "I'd mislaid an entire century, the one separating Columbus' sail in 1492 from Jamestown's founding in 160-something."

So he set out on a tour from Newfoundland to the Caribbean, the Southwest and Mexico to fill in the gaps before and after America was not-exactly-discovered by Columbus.

There are many of them, starting with the Norse exploration circa 1000 A.D. of what the sailors called Vinland (they were fooled by grapes from elsewhere), now Newfoundland. Leif Eriksson's siblings were the first Europeans to encounter the natives in Vinland and the first birth of a European in the New World was nearly six centuries before Virginia Dare in 1587.

More than the historical revelations, the chief attraction of his book lies in armchair-traveling with a personable, entertaining companion.

In Newfoundland, Horowitz endured with considerable unpleasantness a long sweat-lodge session. Memories are long, the author discovers. Indians in the South and Southwest still simmer over the brutal conquistadors. On the other hand, there is a surprising number of conquistador sympathizers.

Throughout the Spanish-dominated region there is much resentment of the national lack of importance placed on Southwest history as compared with that johnny-come-lately, New England.

Altogether Horwitz focuses on 10 or so historical episodes, including, of course, Jamestown and Plymouth. He retraces Francisco Vasquez de Coronado's route, starting in Mexico and follows Cabeza de Vaca's eight-year, thousands-of-miles slog through "an impoverished and Hobbesian world."

No historical figure comes off looking notably good. Hernando de Soto, hands-down winner of the brutality sweepstakes, was a "monstrous man." And for Columbus, his criticism of choice is ridicule.

America was "discovered" accidentally by the Norseman Bjarni Herjolfsson. Columbus, popularly credited with the discovery, "didn't know where he was, or what he'd done." The man for whom so much in the United States is named never set foot on the continent.

Columbus made four voyages, each more hapless than the last. "The more he saw the less he learned," Horwitz concludes. He died convinced he had reached Asia.


Wisconsin resident Roger K. Miller is a retired journalist and author of the novel, "Invisible Hero."


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