Click here to read reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott's take on A Land So Strange.
His full name was Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. He was the King of Spain’s Royal Treasurer and part of a band of intrepid conquistadors who in 1528 set sail for the New World with the intention of colonizing Florida. But, after a hurricane caused the loss of two ships and a delay of months, and a costly navigation error owing to both the ineptitude of a pilot they picked up in Cuba and the strong Gulf Stream currents, the colonists found themselves split from the group still aboard the ships. Stranded in Florida, about 1500 miles away from the closest Spanish stronghold, they had little choice but to walk across America to try to reach their intended destination of Panuco, in Mexico. On their journey, they were brought to the brink of death several times by entanglements with Indians, starvation, sickness and drowning.
A Land So Strange tells the harrowing story of Cabeza de Vaca, whose last name literally translates to “Cow’s Head.” He was one of the handful who lived through the ordeal to relate the tale, after being enslaved for several years by Indians, becoming a valued trader of goods between various tribes, and finally honored as a medicine man. Only three others survived of the original three hundred men and women who had agreed to colonize Florida, part of a large territory given to the leader of the expedition, Panfilo de Naraez, by King Ferdinand.
Though Cabeza de Vaca’s story has been accessible online told from different perspectives, Andress Resendez’s retelling places it in relationship with the times and other important historical explorations and exploits, such as Hernan Cortes’s conquering of the Mayan Empire. Also, Resendez provides a narrative structure that ties together the most important aspects of the story linearly, making the adventures and hardships Cabeza de Vaca and the other Spaniards underwent seem vibrant and suspenseful - and making the book, as reviewer Carilyn See for Washington Post World writes, “nearly impossible to put down.”
One particularly interesting hardship Cabeza de Vaca and the other colonists faced involved their decision to build five rafts out of logs and attempt to get far enough out to sea with them that the people who had stranded them might see them and rescue the survivors, a decision driven by their intense disappointment over not discovering the vast riches of gold they sought and by their running low on food and water. The band had to resort to killing all of their horses, one at a time, while they made their escape plans and constructed the rafts; they also had to melt down their guns to forge crude tools they would need. They used the horses’ manes and tails to make rope to lash the logs together and the leather from the horses’ legs to create pouches to hold water. The area became known as the Bay of Horses, and the skeletons of the unlucky animals were there for years afterwards as abject reminders of the colonists’ fate in the New World.
In melting down their weapons and killing their horses, they were in essence, giving up their two biggest advantages in warfare against the Indians. As Andress Resendez writes:
From now on, they would have to face the New World fully exposed to its
perils. Surviving because of superior military technology was one thing. It
would be quite another to do so by wits alone.
Another problem: very few of the men could swim, and they were afraid that their raft-building efforts might result in their deaths by drowning. Getting the 15-ton raft adequately seaworthy to move out into the Gulf of Mexico was no guarantee that they would be spotted and rescued. Also, if the rafts were separated from each other, it could prove devastating to their plans. They had to do something, however - staying where they were, they decided, would mean certain death.
A Land So Strange is a fascinating account of survival under horrendous circumstances. The story of Cabeza de Vaca’s journey by raft and by foot across America, his years-long enslavement in Texas, and his eventual role as a healer respected by the natives (who offered tributes wherever he went, believing the prayers he spoke and cross he carried healed the sick) makes for a must-read for history buffs and those fascinated by real-life struggles to survive against all odds. This highly recommended book brings fresh life to a little-known chapter in America’s history and places it into context with Spain’s goal of empire building.