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May 3-9, 2006

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'Brutal Journey'

Brutal Journey: The Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America
REVIEW (By Paul Schneider; Henry Holt and Co.; 366 pages; $26 cloth)
—Michael S. Gant

Talk about extreme travel. In 1528, Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez embarked on an expedition jonesing for treasure in Florida. Things started to go wrong in a hurry: bad weather, bad communications and suspicious natives decimated the ranks. Eventually, their ships lost, Narváez's army embarked on an astonishing trek across the southern coast of America headed to Texas, mucking through swamps and clinging to jury-rigged rafts. Only a few lived long enough to see Texas, where they were traded as slaves by local tribes. Finally, three Spaniards and one Moroccan (our of about 400) transited Mexico until they stumbled back to a Spanish settlement eight years later. In the end, the mere survival of these men seemed like a miracle of sorts, and, as Paul Schneider writes, "their already strangle lives began to veer into the realm of the bizarre." They became holy faith healers to the Indians, attracting a cult following. What we know of this punishing passage is based on only two documents: an official joint report by the four survivors and a more intimate account by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the treasurer for the doomed expedition. Schneider combines the two versions into a quick-paced narrative and sweetens the deal with background about Narvåez's early disastrous encounters with his nemesis Cortés. Along the way, he also pays attention to modern anthropological research and notes some of the more trenchant ironies. When the troop is reduced to 40 starving, freezing men whose last shreds of clothes have disintegrated, "Nakedness wasn't just a practical issue. It was also a symbolic turning point, after which the Spaniards could no longer differentiate themselves form those whom they had come to conquer."


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