Thursday, May 17, 2007

Paul Schneider's "Brutal Journey"

Paul Schneider is the author of The Adirondacks: A History of America's First Wilderness, The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket, and Brutal Journey: The Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to Brutal Journey and reported the following:
Page 99, as it turns out, may well be the most brutal page in Brutal Journey. In the course of a couple of paragraphs, the conquistador Balboa orders his dogs to eviscerate forty native Panamanian cross-dressers, Cortes severs the thumbs of seventeen Tlaxcalan "spies," De Soto sends six native North American prisoners back to their village without their hands, and Narvaez -- the commander of the expedition the book traces -- slices off the nose of a gloriously tattooed Floridian cacique named Hirrihigua. Hirrihigua begins to get his revenge at the bottom of the page by sending a few of Narvaez's men running through the village naked while his warriors pot shot them with arrows, but has to wait until page 100 to carry out his more creative tortures.

From a technical standpoint, re-reading page 99 reminds me of how wide a net I cast in order to find contemporary sources that could fill in the blanks and contextualize the incredible journey of Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow survivors across North America in the 1520s, and how vivid those other sources proved to be. From a dramatic perspective, the page fits into what I might call the “Heart of Darkness” sub-theme of the book, in which individual capacities for both violence and kindness are exposed as somewhat malleable entities, not tied to race or class, but that bend and morph as the expedition in question seeps ever deeper into the continent. Given the world we currently live in, I couldn’t help but notice that all of the acts described above were essentially terroristic in nature, designed not so much to punish their specific victims as to send a political message to an absent audience.

Though the journey is surely brutal in places, the violence of the page is not necessarily representative of the entire book. During the writing I didn’t call it “Brutal Journey,” but rather, “Lost in the New World.” To me, it’s mostly a story of survival against all odds, which is to say a story of obsession, innovation, collaboration, and hope. For the four who lived, and made it from Florida to Mexico City, it’s a story of shedding their preconceived identities as foreign conquerors and slaves, and becoming something altogether unexpected and new. Not “going Native,” exactly, but cobbling together some new amalgamated identity tuned to their new surroundings. Becoming, I suppose you could say, American.
Visit Paul Schneider's website and read the Introduction and Chapter One from Brutal Journey.

--Marshal Zeringue