In 1528, a mission set out from Spain to colonize Florida. But the expedition went horribly wrong: Delayed by a hurricane, knocked off course by a colossal error of navigation, and ultimately doomed by a disastrous decision to separate the men from their ships, the mission quickly became a desperate journey of survival.
Of the 300 men who had embarked on the journey, only four survived - three Spaniards and an African slave. This tiny band endured a horrific march through Florida, a harrowing raft passage across the Louisiana coast, and years of enslavement in the American Southwest. They journeyed for almost 10 years in search of the Pacific Ocean that would guide them home, and they were forever changed by their experience. The men lived with a variety of nomadic Indians and learned several indigenous languages. They saw lands, peoples, plants, and animals that no outsider had ever seen before.
In this enthralling tale of four castaways wandering in an unknown land, Andres Resndez brings to life the vast, dynamic world of North America just a few years before European settlers would transform it forever.
"Told from an intriguing and original perspective, Reséndez's narrative is a marvelous addition to the corpus of survival and adventure literature." (Publishers Weekly)
"A must-read for anyone interested in the early history of European exploration in North America—or in real-life adventure, compellingly told." (Bookmarks)
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Superb telling of a foundational New World story
Yes, if only to re-read the opening chapters with full knowledge of where the characters they introduce were going to end up. Resendez starts off with plenty of history, of the Spanish colonization project, the backgrounds of the principal figures in the narrative and their relations with the Spanish court and colonial administrators, and it's a lot to assimilate. But it's absolutely critical background for understanding what Cabeza de Vaca's shipmates thought their mission was in the New World, and why they made the mistakes they did.
Davis is one of the best narrators of nonfiction I've heard on audiobook. His pacing and intonation are consistently spot on. His pronunciation of Spanish is also of near-native quality. (This does mean that an English speaker may not always catch a name on first hearing; but that's a small price to pay for a narrator capable of being so faithful to his material.)
Cabeza de Vaca's narrative is many things: an epic story of survival, a harrowing tragedy, a lesson in the folly and hubris of the Spanish conquistadores, a rare source of evidence about the lives of numerous Native peoples just before their lives were changed forever by European expansion. If you've read his own telling of it, you know that there are, for the modern reader, lots of puzzling gaps and unanswered questions. Resendez's project is to fill in those gaps and answer as many of the questions as he can while retelling chronologically the story of the Narváez expedition. He's good on the Native American background and especially good on the Spanish background—at moments you feel like you're actually present at the court of Charles I or dockside in Seville watching the colonists' ships being loaded. The result is a story that's gripping enough for someone encountering it for the first time, but informative enough to satisfy someone who knows it well.
(For what it's worth, the publisher's summary is a bit inaccurate. Only four men survived until the end of the tale, but many of the original 300 made it as far as Texas. The four survivors weren't originally trying to get to the Pacific—as we learn, that was a shift in destination made very late in their story.)
A worthwhile listen