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Originally published Friday, May 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"A Voyage Long and Strange": Rediscovering U.S. history between 1492, Mayflower

Plymouth Rock is iconic in a uniquely American way, which is to say that most Americans know it is historically significant but have little...

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Tony Horwitz will read from "A Voyage Long and Strange" at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St. in Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

Plymouth Rock is iconic in a uniquely American way, which is to say that most Americans know it is historically significant but have little idea why. In his wry historical travelogue, "A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World," (Henry Holt, 464 pp., $27.50), Tony Horwitz aims to fill that void and plenty of others between the year 1492, when Columbus sailed to the New World, and the early 1600s, when England established itself here.

Horwitz colors those fuzzy years in the collective American memory with vivid characters and violent tales of early European exploits. He lends depth to stories that many Americans know, from disputed accounts of thanksgiving meals to the ravages of European conquest and disease on Native Americans, and he introduces many they do not.

One long-forgotten explorer was Estevanico, an African slave who was part of a disastrous Spanish expedition that began in 1528 in present-day Florida. Estevanico and three other survivors trekked across vast portions of the continent, probably crossing Texas and parts of the Southwest into Mexico. He returned north with a troupe of Spaniards looking for riches and claimed to have found them before being killed by natives.

Estevanico's travels, Horwitz writes, "set in train the Spanish conquest of the southwestern United States. Yet this remarkable man — African, Arab, European slave, American healer, interlocutor between three continents and cultures — is barely remembered today, except at a small park named for him, in a barrio at the edge of Tucson."

Like most Americans, Horwitz — a history major, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and acclaimed author best known for "Confederates in the Attic" — did not learn these things in school.

He was disappointed by his first visit to Plymouth Rock, which "looked like a fossilized potato." Abashed at his ignorance, Horwitz pored over seldom-cracked history books, letters and journals chronicling early European excursions to America. Then, armed with wit and newfound wisdom, he traveled to many seminal places to find what remains.

For the most part, they are not vacation spots, and Horwitz weaves his poignant and hilarious sufferings into this book as he did in "Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before."

Covered with sweat and insects, he trudges to the Florida site of an Indian settlement demolished by the Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto. He nearly combusts at a sweat lodge in Newfoundland, braving the ritual of a tribe whose ancestors might have crossed paths with the Vikings, the first Europeans to discover America several centuries before Columbus. "I tried to summon snow-laden bison charging across a wintry plain. But inappropriate images kept intruding: funeral pyres, molten lava, Joan of Arc."

In the Dominican Republic, Horwitz visits a massive memorial allegedly containing Columbus' remains. Other countries have donated emblems of their history and culture, including samurai armor from Japan and Ming vases from China. From the U.S.: Small photographs of July 4 celebrations and poster-sized blowups of newspapers from Sept. 12, 2001: "DAY OF TERROR." "HOW MANY DEAD?" "OUR NATION SAW EVIL."

"What I felt at that moment wasn't sorrow for the 9/11 victims, but mortification. Tiny Ecuador gave precious pottery as a token of its heritage. My nation, the hemisphere's richest, offered only this: Share our fear and feel our pain," Horwitz writes.

If the book has a flaw, it is the staggering amount of new information. If Americans have been lulled by incomplete and erroneous educations into believing that little happened between 1492 and the Mayflower, the spell remains deep. Horwitz's riveting book awakens interest, but many details will be forgotten.

Horwitz knows it, too. Shortly after revealing the story of Plymouth Rock — that a church elder born a quarter-century after the Mayflower's arrival believed the Pilgrims stepped there — he laments as he shivers beside the rock, "Myth remained intact, as stubbornly embedded as the lump of granite in the pit before me."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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