Saturday, November 25, 2006

Blue Latitudes (Tony Horwitz)

Prior to our recent trip to Hawaii, I thought it might be a good idea to get some island-themed books at the library. One I ended up taking with me was Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz. My knowledge of Captain Cook prior to reading this book didn't really go beyond name recognition, and I'd say that would probably be true for all my knowledge of the explorers. Other than learning their names along with a brief career synopsis in 4th grade, Cook (and the others) haven't really come up that much in conversation. Though, thanks to my trusty Lonely Planet guide, I did know about his eventful end on the shores of Hawaii.

Horwitz writes history in my favorite way to read it. He intersperses Cook's voyages (even with excerpts from Cook's journals and journals from others on the ships with him) with his own voyages to these places, where he talks to both experts and everyday people who live with Cook's legacy, in places like Fiji, Tonga, Australia, Hawaii, even in the very remote Unalaska Island in the Bering Sea. One of Horwitz's goal in doing this research and writing this book was to get as close as he could to a balanced account, no only presenting the English side, but also that of the natives of the places Cook visited.

Among Horwitz traveling adventures are many trips at sea, which prove very entertaining as he readily admits it's not his favorite way to travel. During a yacht race in Australia, he says, "I sprawled flat with my face against the desk. This seemed to help, so long as I hugged the mast and kept my eyes firmly shut. Eventually I felt not so much sick as listless and profoundly apathetic, like a polar explorer who announces, 'I'll just lie down in the snow for a while.' Or like the pitiable few in Bligh's longboat who, after being set adrift from the Bounty, became so thirsty and despairing that they drank seawater and died. It was depressing to realize that I was the type who wouldn't have made it."

In Cooktown, Australia, a remote town best known for its rowdiness and drinking, they have an annual "Discovery Festival" celebrating the Endeavour's landing there. When Horwitz takes part he learns, "the reenactment also had a shifting cast. A mainstay of the troup once failed to show up because 'he was on holiday at the Queen's request,' Rob said; in other words, in prison, for possession of drugs. Another lost his part due to 'lead poisoning,' meaning he'd shot himself. Also, since the reenactment came on the last day of the festival, it inevitably suffered from AWOL sailors: men too hung over to show up."

In Horwitz's travels, he encounters almost every possible emotion regarding Cook. Many islanders felt rage at what he had done to their ancestors. Even more it seemed were apathetic about it. And in many places, Horwitz found people trying their best keep the best of Cook alive and honored. He also encounters people living, as he and often they refer to it, on the edge of the world, such as in a small town on the Alaskan Peninsula, where he goes for a walk onshore. "Almost no one else bothered to disembark, and it was easy to see why. The wind blew so hard that I was almost crawling on all fours by the time I reached the end of the long pier. Taking refuge in the first building I came to--the harbor office--I found four men sipping coffee and staring out the window. . . . 'A bit fresh out today,' I said, as a conversation started. One of the men looked at me strangely. 'This is a nice day today,' he said' Last month we clocked the wind at a hundred and thirty-seven miles an hour.'"

This book is interesting both for the stories of the history and those of the present. It's a long book, but worth the read, and entertaining the whole way through.

Next book up: Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Dean Karnazes

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