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Brutal Journey: The Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America (John MacRae Books)
Synopses & Reviews
A gripping account of four explorers adrift in an unknown land and the harrowing journey that took them across North America 270 years before Lewis and Clark
One part Heart of Darkness, one part Lewis and Clark, Brutal Journey tells the story of a group of explorers who came to the new world on the heels of Cortés; bound for glory, only four of four hundred would survive. Eight years and some five thousand miles later, three Spaniards and a black Moroccan wandered out of the wilderness to the north of the Rio Grande and into Cortes' gold-drenched Mexico.
The four survivors brought nothing back from their sojourn other than their story, but what a tale it was. They had become killers and cannibals, torturers and torture victims, slavers and enslaved. They became faith healers, arms dealers, canoe thieves, spider eaters, and finally, when there were only the four of them left in the high Texas desert, they became itinerate messiahs. They became, in other words, whatever it took to stay alive long enough to inch their way toward Mexico, the only place where they were certain they would find an outpost of the Spanish empire.
The journey of the Cabeza De Vaca expedition is one of the greatest survival epics in the history of American exploration. By drawing on the accounts of the first explorers and the most recent findings of archaeologists and academic historians, Paul Schneider offers a thrilling and authentic narrative to replace a legend of North American exploration.
"Despite his failure to suppress the rebellious Corts in Mexico, would-be conquistador Pnfilo de Narvez was given another chance by the king of Spain, who awarded him governorship over the entire Gulf Coast of the modern United States. But Narvez's luck was no better this time: the expedition, which arrived in 1528, was a complete disaster. Out of the 400 men who went ashore in Florida, only four made it to Mexico eight years later, long after Narvez himself was lost at sea in a makeshift boat. Schneider (The Adirondacks) has only two firsthand documents to work with, but he ably combines the raw narrative with a wealth of secondary research to create a vivid tale filled with gripping scenes, as when natives lead the starving Spanish forces into a swamp ambush. Though primarily concerned with the Spaniards' experiences, Schneider also provides well-rounded portrayals of the indigenous cultures they came in contact with — among them tribes that came to regard the handful of survivors as magical healers who could raise the dead. The ethnographic balance takes a thrilling adventure and turns it into an engrossing case study of early European colonialism gone epically wrong. Illus., map." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"On May 1, 1528, the Spanish conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez marched an army of 300 men away from his boats along the western coast of Florida near Tampa Bay, heading north in search of great cities to conquer and gold to amass. Eight years later and 2,000 miles away, four survivors walked out of the hills on the western coast of Mexico. Three of them prepared a report of their experiences for authorities... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) on Hispaniola, but that report exists today only in paraphrase. The sole direct eyewitness account is the one first published in 1542 by the most prominent of the survivors, the expedition's royal treasurer, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. Cabeza de Vaca's narrative is one of the most famous documents of early New World encounters, having appeared in dozens of editions in the 20th century. In 1999, the University of Nebraska published a massive three-volume edition, with a new translation accompanied by hundreds of pages of explanatory notes and scholarly essays. So do we need Paul Schneider's 'Brutal Journey,' which is essentially a retelling of Cabeza de Vaca's narrative? The answer is a qualified yes. First the 'yes,' then the qualifiers. Although familiar to academics and to Texans generally, Cabeza de Vaca's story is not known to most Americans, and it deserves to be. It's a hair-raising account of the slow death of an army and the abandonment of civilized behavior in order to stay alive. Yet the treasurer's account will never command a broad audience. He leaves too much unexplained or deliberately elided, his chronology is sometimes hard to follow, his geography is vague, and he has that 16th-century way of leaving relative pronouns floating free so that you often don't know to whom he is referring. He needs a better writer. Schneider is that. The author of two previous works of history, he's got a vigorous, clear style, and his use of contextualizing sources — archaeology, ethnology, histories of other explorations of the period — is judicious and economical. He's best on the first portion of the journey. From May to November of 1528, Narvaez's men were bogged down in the swamps of Florida, repeatedly lured into traps by various tribes and attacked. They retreated to the panhandle coast, got sick, starved and ate their horses, constructed makeshift boats, then sailed west until the Mississippi effluent flung them out into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving them to die of thirst at sea or wash ashore in little bands along the Texas coast, where they either starved to death or were picked off by the local inhabitants. By never slighting the brutality of the conquistadors, Schneider captures a delicious mix of the horrifying and the cheering, as we watch these savage invaders with their cruelly superior technology get their butts kicked right off the continent. From the point where Cabeza de Vaca finds himself naked and near death at the southernmost point of present-day Texas — first with a few dozen comrades, only three of whom survived, all more or less captives of the natives — to the end of his journey in western Mexico, his narrative presents ever-growing challenges to the interpreter. Here, alas, Schneider's approach is less satisfying. Simply put, the question confronting readers is: How much should we believe of what Cabeza de Vaca tells us? It appears indisputable that he and his companions, after nearly seven years with their captors, decided to escape and in about nine months crossed to the west coast, traveling for the most part just south of the present-day U.S. border. But everything else cries out for a few hard questions. Cabeza de Vaca suddenly stops naming or describing any of the tribes he encounters — why? He and his companions become celebrated healers, followed by 'never less than two thousand' worshipful natives. Might this be a humiliated man's fantasy of power or, indeed, a once-nearly-dead Christian's fantasy of a resurrected Christ? As they travel with each tribe and get passed to the next, the former tribe ritually loots the latter, in an ongoing chain. Should we be suspicious that this sounds like a nativized version of the successful Spanish conquest that Cabeza de Vaca was cheated of in Florida? Is it merely coincidence that everything Cabeza de Vaca tells us about the natives' response to his presence argues for his being the next royal grant-holder for the region — exactly the position he sought after he was rescued? Is it merely coincidence that at the end of his journey, in unexplained circumstances, he manages to lose all of the material evidence of his claims? Schneider does admit that some of what Cabeza de Vaca says is 'very difficult to believe,' but in the main he shies away from probing. Of the Spaniard's text, he writes, 'Volumes of essays have deconstructed it, reconstructed it, unpacked it, and interrogated it ... but packed or unpacked, what can be said unequivocally is that Cabeza de Vaca knew his story was his best asset, and he knew how to tell it well.' Well, yes, but it's the equivocal aspects of Cabeza de Vaca's narrative that are the most interesting. As straight history, it's simply too vague. A final objection: The subtitle is misleading. Cabeza De Vaca's journey was hardly 'the first crossing of North America.' He and his companions traversed the northernmost haunch of the Central American isthmus at a time when, a bit farther south, there was regular Spanish traffic between the east and west coasts. It's unfortunate that Schneider or his publisher couldn't come up with something better to attract the broader readership this story deserves. Brian Hall is the author of six books, including 'I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark.'" Reviewed by Brian Hall, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Schneider's thorough research and vivid writing create a fast-paced, moving story, one that is difficult to believe and impossible to forget."
--The New York Times Book Review
A gripping survival epic, Brutal Journey tells the story of an army of would-be conquerors, bound for glory, who landed in Florida in 1528. But only four of the four hundred would survive: eight years and some five thousand miles later, three Spaniards and a black Moroccan wandered out of the wilderness to the north of the Rio Grande and into Cortes's gold-drenched Mexico. The survivors brought nothing back other than their story, but what a tale it was. They had become killers and cannibals, torturers and torture victims, slavers and enslaved. They became faith healers, arms dealers, canoe thieves, spider eaters. They became, in other words, whatever it took to stay alive.
The journey of the Narvaez expedition is one of the greatest survival epics in the history of American exploration. By combining the accounts of the explorers with the most recent findings of archaeologists and academic historians, this work offers an authentic narrative to replace a legend of North American exploration.
About the Author
Paul Schneider, author of the highly praised and successful The Adirondacks (0-8050-5990-3), a New York Times Notable Book, and The Enduring Shore (0-8050-6734-5), lives with his wife and son in Martha's Vineyard and Bradenton, Florida.
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