Across the Atlantic

I know I already posted about our American history expedition checklist, but first, historically speaking, we needed to sail from the old world to the new.

There are obviously a lot of resources dealing with Christopher Columbus, but most of them still repeat myths about either the time period (everyone thought the world was flat!) or his treatment of the Native Americans he encountered (you can’t gloss over it, folks, he advocated cruel treatment and enslavement, end of story).  I didn’t exactly scour the shelves for the perfect book, but we found some value in the Jean Fritz biography Where Do You Think You’re Going, Christopher Columbus?, which emphasized his determination, a quality I won’t argue with.  We also enjoyed the pictures in the D’Aulaires’ biography, though I admit I made up the story mostly myself.  They were just too nice to the man.

By far, the book we’ve enjoyed the most as a bridge has been the book 1492: The Year of the New World by Piero Ventura.  This book is out of print, but can be readily found inexpensively through used book sources.  Ventura doesn’t give my perfect account of Columbus either (he dodges most of the genocide issues by focusing just on the voyages and politics and not on the encounters with the indigenous peoples), but the book is much more than a story of Columbus.  The first half of the book takes the reader on a journey through the old world, stopping off in Lubeck, Bruges, Genoa, Spain, the European front of the Ottoman Empire and more.  Each stop gives the reader an imagined character to anchor the description: a young man about to get married, an elderly soldier, a young lady in waiting.  Then, Ventura tells about Columbus’s voyage and begins his geographical journey all over again, exploring more characters among the Inca, the Maya, the Aztecs, the Plains Indians, and more.  It’s a wonderful snapshot of two worlds on the brink of collision.  The end of the book contains a short survey of life in east Asia at the time as well as some information about the early conquistadors who followed Columbus.  That mostly feels tacked on, but the book is an excellent resource, one apparently unknown enough that I couldn’t even find a decent cover image to poach, so I had to take my own.

The other thing the kids are enjoying (at this very moment in fact) is a relic from my childhood, the TV show The Mysterious Cities of Gold, which is available on Netflix instant.  If you were a loyal viewer of Nickelodeon back in the day, you may remember this French/Japanese cartoon, which told the story of Esteban, Zia and Tau, three children of different backgrounds united to find the cities of gold along with the conquistador Mendoza.  The show is obviously fictional with a number of magical elements, but the landscape of Spain, the ocean voyages, Peru and the Incan people are all reasonably realistic and informative for children.  Plus, each episode is followed by a short 2 minute live action documentary dealing with subjects related to the episode, such as ocean travel and Machu Picchu.  I must say that for a show produced in the early 1980’s, it holds up well.  The dubbed dialogue is a little stiff and the animation is clearly older, but the stories are compelling enough that the kids have been riveted.  I feel like I can admit that I watched every episode religiously at my grandmother’s one summer without any shame for having been so into it.  The show is based loosely on the novel The King’s Fifth by Scott O’Dell.  A sequel is apparently in production now, thirty years later, so I suppose that’s a testament to the enduring power of the show.

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