A New York Times Notable Book.
In this stunning work of historical fiction, Laila Lalami brings us the imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of America--a Moroccan slave whose testimony was left out of the official record. In 1527 the conquistador Pnfilo de Narvez sailed from the port of Sanlcar de Barrameda with a crew of 600 men and nearly a hundred horses. His goal was to claim what is now the Gulf Coast of the United States for the Spanish crown and, in the process, become as wealthy and famous as Hernn Corts. But from the moment the Narvez expedition landed in Florida, it faced peril--navigational errors, disease, starvation, as well as resistance from indigenous tribes. Within a year there were only four survivors: the expedition's treasurer, lvar Nez Cabeza de Vaca; a Spanish nobleman named Alonso del Castillo Maldonado; a young explorer named Andrs Dorantes de Carranza; and Dorantes' Moroccan slave, Mustafa al-Zamori, whom the three Spaniards called Estebanico. These four survivors would go on to make a journey across America that would transform them from proud conquistadores to humble servants, from fearful outcasts to faith healers.
The Moor's Account brilliantly captures Estebanico's voice and vision, giving us an alternate narrative for this famed expedition. As the dramatic chronicle unfolds, we come to understand that, contrary to popular belief, black men played a significant part in New World exploration, and Native American men and women were not merely silent witnesses to it.
In Laila Lalami's deft hands, Estebanico's memoir illuminates the ways in which stories can transmigrate into history, even as storytelling can offer a chance for redemption and survival.
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Story interesting, performance over-wrought
- Leigh Nelson
Terrific read evoking 16th century New World life
Anyone who grew up in Texas, as I did, and attended a public Junior High School remembers the requisite Texas History course. The most fascinating events to come out of that class were the Alamo, of course, and the story of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. As the treasurer and royal representative of the ill-fated Spanish exploratory expedition led by Panfilo de Narvaez, he was one of only four known surviviors. The others included two Spanish officers and noblemen, one of whom was Andreas Dorantes, who owned as a slave, the fourth survivor, a Moor named Mustafa al-Zamori, whom his master renamed Esteban. These four eventually became the first Europeans, and, of course, first African, to wander across the future states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Later, being found by a group of Spanish slave traders in present day Sonora, Mexico, they ended their eight year rambling trek in the capital of New Spain, present day Mexico City.
This outstanding work of historical fiction shows the duplicitous nature of these Spanish would-be conquistadors as seen in their avowed goal to bring Florida under the control of the King of Spain and bringing Christianity to the natives which contrasted with their more obvious self-serving goals of gold, personal wealth, and fame. The Narvaez expedition of 300 men, which landed in Florida near Tampa Bay in April of 1528, completely underestimated both the physical endurance required to navigate through that land as well as the ability of the native tribes to defend themselves. Viewed through the eyes of Esteban, with flashbacks to his days growing up and working as a merchant in Morocco, Neil Shah delivers a 5-star narration, giving the main Spanish characters distinctive voices along with Esteban’s haunting voice and those of several native characters. The story follows Esteban through the miseries of how he became a slave in Spain, traveling to the New World, suffering through the decisions of Narvaez and others that doomed the expedition, and then the struggles thereafter. All the while “The Moor’s” desire to regain his freedom is paramount in his thoughts and deeds.
My only criticism of the story line was there were infrequent descriptions of the lands themselves once having left Florida, so one had difficulty determining exactly where they were geographically, since movement through time was based on moving from tribe to tribe ever westwards. At some point they moved across plains to mountains and eventually to Culican on the Pacific Coast without any geographical references. That said, the fascinating depiction via Esteban of the characters, events, and trials of these four men who end up lost in a 16th century landscape of the present U.S. southwest is an engrossing and entertaining read. The nature of humanity in all its forms of good, evil and everything in between are there.