A debut historical novel dramatizes the first contact between Columbus and natives in the Caribbean.
In his book, Rowen braids a series of parallel stories about Columbus and his crew’s initial encounter with the Taino natives he stumbles on when he finds the Caribbean Islands. While the climax of the tale is the crucial point of discovery in 1492, the author begins the narrative in the middle of the 15th century, detailing Columbus’ childhood in Genoa, his early professional pursuits as a merchant and cartographer, and his unrelenting quest to win financial backing for his bold expedition directly across the ocean to the Indies. Rowen also adroitly reconstructs Queen Isabella’s tortured ascendancy to the throne and the political intrigue she navigated since she was a teenager. But most impressively, without the benefit of any written Taino history, the author re-creates the lives of the natives long before Columbus arrives, chronicling the paths of three tribal leaders—caciques—and their varying responses to the European visitors they first believe, in their ghostly pallor, look like spirits or corpses. One of them, Guacanagarí, allows Columbus to erect a more permanent structure on his land, a decision the other two chieftains, Caonabó and Guarionex, consider incautious. Their judgment is confirmed once Columbus’ crew becomes abusive of the women in the absence of their admiral. In addition, Bakako, a young native boy, is taken captive by Columbus and used as a navigator and interpreter, and his astonished curiosity reflects the general bewilderment of the Taino people. The plot concludes in 1493, in advance of Columbus’ return, amid volatilely deteriorating relations between the Taino people and his men. Rowen’s research—a combination of scholarly investigation and travel conducted over six years—is nothing less than breathtaking. The sensitivity and originality of his portrayals are equally impressive, avoiding the trap of simply retelling a familiar tale from an exclusively European perspective or casting the explorers as nothing more than rapacious colonialists. Furthermore, the tale intelligently captures the religious impulse behind Columbus’ adventure as well as the Spanish Inquisition: the powerful Christian devotion of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand.
A remarkably new and inventive take on a momentous episode in the 15th century.