Delightful retelling of the incredible journey of a castaway Spaniard who was in turn enslaved and befriended by Native Americans.
Reséndez (History/Univ. of California, Davis; A Texas Patriot on Trial in Mexico, 2006, etc.) aims to fill in some gaps in the Narrative published in 1542 by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, royal treasurer of a New World expedition who vividly recounted his unanticipated eight-year sojourn in the wilderness. Aiming for a river just north of the portion of Mexico where Hernán Cortés was busily plundering the Aztecs, the fleet commanded by Pánfilo de Narváez was carried off course by the Gulf Stream (unknown to contemporary navigators) and landed mistakenly on the west coast of Florida in April of 1528. Half the expedition, including Cabeza de Vaca, took off on foot along the coast to find the legendary Rio de las Palmas, not realizing they were on the wrong side of the Gulf of Mexico. After a series of dispiriting misadventures, they built rafts that washed up on different parts of the Texas shore, where the men either perished or were taken captive. Enslaved for years by an indigenous Texas tribe, Cabeza de Vaca eventually escaped with two other Spaniards and a native Moroccan slave, Estebanico. Knowledge of the land gleaned from living among the Indians helped them survive as they walked all the way to the Pacific coast, and their rudimentary medical skills enabled them to perform what seemed like miracles of healing to admiring Indians along the way. The castaways finally reestablished contact with Europeans in 1536—and their status as healers quickly diminished. Reséndez proves a patient storyteller, employing effective prose hand in hand with the tools of a scholar, including many maps, excellent footnotes and a terrific Further Reading section.
The experiences of one of the first outsiders to see the American Southwest still prove fresh and pertinent.