A Land So Strange
Andres Resendez
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Buy *A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza De Vaca - The Extraordinary Tale of a Shipwrecked Spaniard Who Walked Across America in the Sixteenth Century* by Andres Resendez online

A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza De Vaca - The Extraordinary Tale of a Shipwrecked Spaniard Who Walked Across America in the Sixteenth Century
Andrés Reséndez
Basic Books
336 pages
January 2009
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Douglas R. Cobb's take on A Land So Strange.

When I first heard about Cabeza de Vaca and his remarkable survival in pre-conquest America, I knew I wanted to read his story. Now Andrés Reséndez, professor of history at UC Davis and author of numerous books about Mexico and the Southwest, has made that possible. He was determined to write this account despite the many other earlier chronicles extant, including that written by Cabeza de Vaca himself.

Cabeza de Vaca was one of four survivors of an expedition gone wrong. He was part of a large group of bold men and women who set out to encounter the Mayan Indians in Mexico, with the ultimate intent of plunder. Spaniards were far superior, they believed, to the native peoples, possessing as they did both horses and armor. Against such conquerors, the natives would be helpless, with their wooden bows and arrows and their nearly naked bodies. However, the Spaniards were not as clever as they needed to be.

To begin with, it took a knowledgeable pilot to get the Spanish ships from Spain to Hispaniola to Cuba to the Yucatan. This represented the mission's first failure. Their vessel was turned around in the strong currents of the Gulf Stream and they wound up in Florida, fortuitously in Tampa Bay. But they wanted to believe they were nearer to their goal than they were and sent out a scouting party to find evidence of their location somewhere in Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca was part of that investigation.

The natives may have been helpless against the might of the Spanish conquistadores, but the landing party was not an army as it pushed into an unknown land with scant knowledge of what to eat or where to find fresh water. The guerilla tactics and general duplicity of the local Indians they encountered wore them down even as they were plagued by extreme hunger, exhaustion and discouragement. Often they would be greeted with friendliness one day, only to be attacked the next. The Indians welcomed and killed capriciously, according to the dictates of their own societies, each one of which was different from the others. Once Cabeza, two other Spaniards and a black Moroccan slave, Estebanico, were cut off from the rest of their dwindling and dying compatriots, they became enslaved. For more than six years, they were dragged from place to place by different tribes, each with incomprehensible customs. They were never treated with great kindness but were not killed.

Their fates began to turn around when, because they were so strange to the natives, they were cast in the role of healers. By saying Christian prayers and laying their hands on victims of illness, they seemed to affect genuine miracles, once even apparently bringing someone back from the dead. The four men began to be revered instead of reviled, and they saw this as a sign from their Christian God that they were doing His will: "Was God merely conducting a cruel experiment, or did he have some larger plan for the castaways? The survivors' transformation into sacred healers left little room for doubt in their minds...their inescapable conclusion was that they had a special connection with God."

This tale is told with assiduous attention to known facts, along with helpful speculations from the author about what conditions for the men must have been like. At one point, the landing party has to build four rafts to transport 200 men along the waters of the Gulf. Reséndez, who visited the areas specific to the story, tries to describe how hard this would have been, even for healthy men, which the party were not. The author is careful to separate some of Cabeza de Vaca's claims, made in his memoirs after his survival and remarkable re-entry into the society of his countrymen, from what was probably more likely the case. De Vaca and the other Spaniards were at pains to avoid the probing of the Spanish Inquisition into their religious activities and to disavow any wickedness on their part, such as mixing with the native women or cooperating too willingly with their pagan captors. Nonetheless, it is clear that Cabeza de Vaca, unlike his companions in survival, developed a true respect for the native peoples that could not be sloughed off once he returned to civil society. His conversion to tolerance and intercultural communication made him unique among men of his origin and station in life.

A Land So Strange revives this amazing saga and contributes a drama and richness that make it a good read as well as an historically reliable account.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2008

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