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Castration, Cannibalism and English Tea

A new book reminds us how riveting history can be when told correctly.

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Any would-be historians out there who are contemplating putting their thoughts and theories to paper might do themselves--and their prospective audience--a big favor by reading Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star first. Then they might ask themselves if they believe that they can write history as well as Connell. If the answer is "no," they may wish to do everyone a favor and abandon their projects.

Connell is first and foremost a writer and poet, but he is also a historian with an exceptional eye for the unusual and telling details. His narratives include the minutiae that most history buffs would overlook. But, when employed by Connell, these morsels bring--to use a painfully hackneyed phrase--history to life. The award-winning Morning Star is just one brilliant example of his ability. In that book, Connell tackled the over-examined topic of Custer's Last Stand. He researched hundreds of writings on the subject and then, in documenting his own take on the disaster, rendered them colorless in comparison.

Counterpoint Press has gathered 20 of Connell's equally powerful essays for a new collection. Included in The Aztec Treasure House are the contents of two long-out-of-print titles--The White Lantern and The Long Desire--as well two articles new to book form. The result is 460-page reminder of just how fascinating history can be when told by a skilled storyteller.

Take for instance Connell's examination of England's search for the Northwest Passage, "The Sea Must Have an Endynge." Rather than boring the readers with charts, graphs or politics, Connell sets the scene by reminding us of the grim realities of the 16th century: "Those were lusty days at sea or ashore, what with garbage hurled from the window, bubonic plague, witches howling and writhing at the stake, human heads displayed on pikes for public instruction, and convicts let down from the gallows so that they might be castrated or disemboweled while still quivering."

Later in the same article, Connell looks at Lord Franklin's doomed 19th-century bid at the Passage, tracing its failure to Anglo arrogance: "[The] English did not understand or refused to admit that their only chance of survival was to emulate the natives. Instead, they went on towing ... wine goblets, the boxes of nails, the sheet lead, the silk handkerchiefs, the soap, the medals, the backgammon board ... until they fell down exhausted in the snow."

At this point, Connell tells us, these explorers were forced to eat the brains of their frozen comrades in hopes of surviving. Later, when the bodies were found, the upper crust back home could not fathom such gruesome doings, "so it was agreed that Eskimos must have been responsible."

Connell shares the omitted details of many such famous episodes. He offers fresh looks at lives of Columbus and Marco Polo, the fate of Atlantis, the Aztecs and the cliff dwellers of the Southwestern U.S. He considers the fantastic amounts of gold once possessed by the Incas and how those vast riches doomed the tribe.

He also celebrates the women explorers who have been overlooked by the men who record history. There was May French Sheldon, Fanny Bullock Burkman, Isabella Bird Bishop and Mary Kingsley, a stout-hearted Victorian who narrowly escapes being impaled in Africa thanks to a "good, thick skirt" and deflects a hippopotamus with her umbrella.

But by far the most riveting tale Connell tells is his famous look at the race to "discover" the South Pole, "The White Lantern." Here we learn of Robert Scott's ill-fated effort to reach the Pole and Roald Amundsen's successful--and forgotten--attempt to do the same. Scott, a 19th-century romantic, relied on luck and English tea to make his journey. He seems as dreamy as a pinwheel. Amundsen, on the other hand, was a pragmatic Norwegian who prepared for his adventures by training hard and sleeping with his windows open all winter long.

There are others who attempt the same trek and most meet terrible fates, but it is Sir Douglas Mawson's try that is the most unforgettable. This plucky Englishman and his colleagues endure 70-below-zero temperatures, frostbite, dysentery and starvation. He watches as his partners die one by one while his own body rots due to exposure. He stays alive only by eating his sled dogs, yet manages to keep a stiff upper lip. (In grand English understatement, he wonders in his journal after discovering that his own feet have turned to a frozen mush, "if there will ever be a day without some special disappointment.")

Ultimately it is such bold--and often misguided--quests that Connell celebrates.

"There is no end to the list of [prodigious adventurers]," Connell writes in another essay. "[It] gradually descends from such legendary individuals to ourselves when, as children, obsessed by the same urge, we get permission to sleep in the back yard."

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