Jul/Aug 2003 Book Reviews

Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before

Tony Horwitz
Henry Holt (October, 2002) 480 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

Blue Latitudes, on Capt. James Cook & Crew's three voyages in the Pacific northwest and beyond, is simply the most interesting and engaging work of nonfiction (or "creative nonfiction") I have read in the past five years. The one before it was Horwitz's last book, Confederates in the Attic—and while that was riveting for me on a personal level, as I grew up in the South, Blue Latitudes is the better book, more universal and accessable, a mixture of first-person journalism with strong narrative technique (creative nonfiction) and history, which is presented so smoothly as to make you amazed you read this thing in a weekend and couldn't put it down, and then you get to the end and notice from the Selected Bibliography that this is also a major work of scholorship—the kind that makes Academics jealous because it's better than they are without being boring and stuffy. I'll bet it makes popular travel writers/participatory journalists like Paul Theroux or Geroge Plimpton envious because Horwitz can do research and they can't—and as in his earlier book he comes across as a likeable guy, not a self-important megalomaniac.

This is the kind of book that, for me at least, comes along once about every 3-5 years. If you're like me, and read widely and often, chances are you have some friends and family who do also, and you want them all to read it; you want to be the one to give it to them, holiday or no, which is what I did with Confederates in the Attic and is also what I'm doing with Blue Latitudes. Tony Horwitz already has a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism, for his early '90s work as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal on the first Gulf War; he deserves another for this, in history.

And as I'm obviously giving this book the big Two Thumbs up and Then Some, and spending 1000 words doing it, let's just go on with this little line of thought for a moment, shall we? We shall. We were reading it at 4 am, wishing it were closer to Father's Day—and not just our father, either! Men like Allen Tanner can teach it to high school students. Beautiful women like Susie McManama can read it while laying out sipping Daquiris on the beach this summer. Grad students can use it in their dissertations, and even idiots can enjoy it. We were flipping through our phone book and didn't find a person in there who wouldn't dig it all the way to Tahiti and back in a pea-green boat, even those who care little or nothing for books on travel or history.

And I admit that before I picked it up, Captain Cook and his voyages had never been that important to me, or seen by me as having literally shaped the modern world as we know it—nor was I aware that Star Trek has been ripping off details from Cook for years. I was at one time very interested in the Franklin Expedition, and in the past few years the culture's had Shackleton Fever, but it took the writing of Tony Horwitz to really get me Cooking—and it's amazing how fascinating it all is, no matter who you are or what you normally like to read. It's as good as Six Feet Under on one of those nights where the episode lasts the full hour.

James Cook truly did chart new territories, going where no European had gone before—and he did it in his 50s, which was of course elderly in the late 1700s, in conditions that make a jail cell look like San Francisco Bay without the fog. Yep, Horwitz has a real prediliction for examining Hardcore Human Experience—and while he does so with the upmost taste and delicacy (which often gives the writing a certain ironic hilarity), you'd be hard-pressed (pun intended) to find an S & M site on the Internet where they get into stuff like the voyages of Cook's Endeavour. And it's all right here in this book. And sex, you wanted that, too, right? Well, read the chapter about when they go to Tahiti. They had more fun than Marlon Brando in the 70s. And gave the "new" world all the "old" had to offer—to the point at which the population of said island was reduced by some 95% in the next hundred years. Indeed, on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, Cook's voyages define for Horwitz the literal beginnings of global Eurocentric hegemony and homogony—but the sex sure seemed like a good idea at the time.

That's what Sir Joseph Banks, the youthful naturalist, thought, at least. He loved it, and you gentlemen will read the book and fancy yourself Sir Joseph in Tahiti circa 1770. You ladies out there, you want him, too! You won't want Cook, but you'll really get into the toughness of it—well, I take it back—a woman like Melanie Hassler would desire Cook, a man who makes Shackleton and Franklin and Bering and Amundsen put together look like an uncooked hot dog. There's violence in this adventure story, too—I mean really. It's got you hanging on every word, because just about every word is true. It's wild, all the popular genres rolled into one, with NASA parallels thrown in to boot! You'll want to buy it for your hairdresser. Your dentist. Your A.A. sponsor. Your dope dealer. And if these are all the same person (could be), you'll start in on your kids.

Because while I could step back and really analyze how brilliant is Horwitz's own account of shadowing (in his own ways) Cook's journeys, and noting changes, etc. (and making a lot of sapient observations between the lines as suggestions, too), I think the most remarkable thing about this book is how accessable and engaging and, yes, fun it can be to read a book on history-when it's written like this, for this, as I've shown, is about a little of everything. And you'll be surprised, as I was, at how much you'll learn: major facts, geography, dates, names, events, as well as tidbits that bring to life, by microcosm, the very different worlds of the past in a past where there were, for the very last time, different worlds.

1000 words, folks, and what I've said ain't the half of it. But go buy it or check it out and go read it—you'll wish every history book read like a book by Tony Horwitz.

Or, who knows, maybe you won't. But I feel sure that you believe that I do.


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