A historical novel dramatizes the lives of a handful of Indigenous people who encountered Christopher Columbus.
The latest book by Wilson (Hero Street, USA, 2009) spins a long, complex narrative from a footnote of the Columbus story. When the master mariner and proto-imperialist returned to Spain in 1493 from his first famous voyage to find a direct navigable route to India, the explorer brought with him the assorted treasures from the New World that he ended up discovering instead. To King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, he delivered gold, jewels, exotic birds, and plants—and six Taíno, the kidnap victims of the volume’s title. These Native Americans were part of the triumphant national tour Columbus orchestrated in order to glorify his epic voyage, but the specific fates of the Taíno captives slip away from the historical record. Two returned to the New World with Columbus on his second voyage; two remained at the Spanish court; and, in Wilson’s account, the remaining two died in Spain. The tale follows the lives of these Taíno as they cross the sea with Columbus and his crew and encounter the strange world of Renaissance Spain, a realm feeling the grip of the Inquisition and bucking with internal conflicts (the expulsion of the Jews, for instance) and external ones (clashes with the armies of Islam). And more immediately, the Taíno must deal throughout the work with the megalomania of Columbus himself.
The author’s choice to narrate the story through the first-person perceptions of the Native Americans themselves has strengths that will be familiar, for example, to readers of Gary Jennings’ Aztec: The alien perspective acts like an anchor for modern readers, who’ll likely be as unfamiliar with Columbus’ world as the natives: Guarocuya, Hayuya, Cacimav, Abey, Ameyro, and Brizuela. Young Guarocuya tells their tale with vigor and vivid imagery; he’s a thoughtful, wide-eyed witness. “I think about all I’ve seen: Great castles and mosques-turned-into cathedrals, monks and priests, princes and potentates, strange food and drink, muskets and cannon, and horns that blared and church bells that rang with our every approach,” he notes. “I’ve learned about the One God that Christians, Jews and Muslims all worship, but never to each other’s satisfaction.” This approach also has its shortcomings, most of them readily visible in that same quote: Since the blanket fear and incomprehension the Taíno would have felt in Spain would do Wilson little good from a narrative standpoint, he must make the Native Americans think and speak in a far more European way than they would have in real life. It’s a kind of cultural sleight-of-hand that’s virtually unavoidable in historical fiction, but the sheer energy and imagery of the bulk of the author’s story more than compensates. He brings the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella vibrantly to life, and his portrait of Columbus as a preening egomaniac should stick with readers whether they agree with it or not.
An intriguing and dynamic tale about six victims of early European colonialism.