Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On the Trail of Our Founders

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in America. The stated meaning of this holiday is a celebration of friendship and collaboration among the Pilgrims and the Indians, the anniversary of the day when they pooled their resources to celebrate harvest together.

The real story of the beginning of America is much less simple, more geographically diffuse, with more characters than the Pilgrims from England and the Wampanoag Tribe from coastal Massachusetts. The real story has Vikings and Spaniards and Indian tribes that once had massive agricultural empires. This is the story that Tony Horwitz attempts to trace in A Voyage Long And Strange.

I loved Horwitz's other two books, but as I said last week, this one was missing something. About halfway through, I figured out what it was: a sidekick. In Confederates in the Attic, Horwitz's guide through much of the former Confederacy was the eccentric Robert Lee Hodge, a hardcore re-enactor who went on crash diets to maintain the appearance of a half-starved Confederate soldier, studied photographs of the dead on battlefields to improve the realism of both his gear and his deaths, and worked a menial job at Home Depot because they were willing to leave him off the schedule whenever he had a re-enactment to attend. In Blue Latitudes, his companion was the sardonic, adventurous Roger Williamson. In this book, he's flying solo and, like real-life solo travel, it tends to get monotonous.

I was also complaining that Horwitz doesn't give enough time to the modern folks. I loved this aspect of his other books best, the way in which he took such a major event and showed how it influenced individual lives decades and centuries later. This book didn't do this as much. He meets a lot of interesting people: a wide variety of re-enactors; a woman involved in the "identification repentence" movement; members of the Paumunkey Tribe in Virginia, one of the few tribes that occupies their original lands as a result of one of the few treaties that was actually honored; Roanoke colony theorists, and members of several heritage societies like the Degree of Pocahontas and the First Families of Virginia. But most of them only get a couple of pages, and they seem more like eccentrics and less like living evidence of the impact of conquest and colonization.

I guess I never really got into this one. I did like his final conclusion, about the dominance of myth over fact, and the ongoing power of Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower in American imagination. If I had picked up this book expecting something different -- a simple history of the exploration of North America, using primary source documents and interviews with modern experts -- I probably would have viewed the book differently. As it is, I was glad to be done with this one...and very sorry to be saying that.