history and the half moon

I like history. In fact, I studied history in graduate school for three years. I don’t, as a general rule, like to read history for fun. There are a couple of exceptions, and I’m actually quite fond of historical fiction. It’s just that I read so much academically that I needed an escape in my pleasure reading time. BUT, I was offered an ARC (advance reading copy) of a newly-released historical non-fiction book, and found myself enjoying it (rather a lot, too!). Lesson: rules are made to be broken. Or something.

Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage That Redrew the Map of the New World is rather self-explanatory. It’s about Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage – the one during which he hijacked his Dutch-sponsored ship and instead of sailing to Russia, went to North America and ‘discovered’ and mapped the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River.

The year 2009 marks the four-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the majestic river that bears his name. Just in time for this milestone, Douglas Hunter, sailor, scholar, and storyteller, has written the first book-length history of the 1609 adventure that put New York on the map.

Hudson was commissioned by the mighty Dutch East India Company to find a northeastern passage over Russia to the lucrative ports of China. But the inscrutable Hudson, defying his orders, turned his ship around and instead headed west—far west—to the largely unexplored coastline between Spanish Florida and the Grand Banks.

Once there, Hudson began a seemingly aimless cruise—perhaps to conduct an espionage mission for his native England—but eventually dropped anchor off Coney Island. Hudson and his crew were the first Europeans to visit New York in more than eighty years, and soon went off the map into unexplored waters.

Hudson’s discoveries reshaped the history of the new world, and laid the foundation for New York to become a global capital. Hunter has shed new light on this rogue voyage with unprecedented research. Painstakingly reconstructing the course of the Half Moon from logbooks and diaries, Hunter offers an entirely new timeline of Hudson’s passage based on innovative forensic navigation, as well as original insights into his motivations.

Half Moon offers a rich narrative of adventure and exploration, filled with international intrigue, backstage business drama, and Hudson’s own unstoppable urge to discover. This brisk tale re-creates the espionage, economics, and politics that drove men to the edge of the known world and beyond.

I don’t think I can offer too much more in the way of ‘summary’ – that description really does the book justice. All that’s left is to say what I liked and why, and also offer an abbreviated academic critique (it’s the only way I know to handle historical non-fiction – apologies in advance!).

What I liked: though the source documentation is pretty sketchy for anything except the actual voyage logs (I mean, it WAS 1609, after all!), Hunter’s done a great job of incorporating all of the ‘what ifs’ of the situation. Through intensive period research and investigation of any and all possible players in the situation, combined with an understanding of the political climate of the time and possible Hudson motivations, he’s created a believable narrative. He takes us through the steps of the voyage: pre-voyage commissioning and the goals of the Dutch East India Company, then the day-to-day progress, what it meant in the context of previous information about North America, and then the eventual unraveling of the voyage, even as fresh discoveries and contact with natives escalated. The book does not end with the end of the voyage, however. Hunter instead continues Hudson’s biography and chronicles his eventual demise, the aftereffects of the mutiny that marooned him as a castaway, and then the final remembrances of Hudson through Dutch, English and eventually American imaginings.

Though Hunter is very intentional and methodical throughout the narrative, it’s never boring or dry. Enough variables are at play, enough whispers of hope and slivers of personality visible in the documentation that the reader is kept guessing as to the outcome, Hudson's next act, and the success of the voyage. I thought it a remarkably accessible nautical history. That’s not to say it’s light reading. It’s substantive in content, and it takes concentration and dedication to get through. But it’s going to appeal equally to the informed public audience AND the academic market.

Critiques: After making the claim that Half Moon will appeal to the academic as well as the amateur history buff, I have to qualify the statement. Historians (or at least the ones I trained with) are obsessed with order, with correct documentation, and with full disclosure of that documentation. In other words, they want footnotes. Extensive ones. Citing where and when all information was got, and especially if any of it was translated, and could you just give us the original in the original language please so we can check it ourselves and make sure you got it right? AHEM. So though the research is thorough, the findings qualified and the narrative interesting…there will be those who decry the lack of ‘research notes’ telling them exactly how they may replicate Mr. Hunter’s work. Be assured, they will still read it. And possibly learn something. I know I did, and I used to specialize in the history of the early 17th century Americas myself. That is all for the critique section.

The author, Douglas Hunter, has previously written about Hudson’s earlier voyages and co-authored a book on yacht design. He lives in Ontario, and is an experienced sailor. It fits, I think – sailor/writer interested in Henry Hudson, one of the most influential navigators for North American history.

I recommend this book to anyone who finds themselves watching The History Channel at random times, especially if they like the nautical bits. It’s not light, and it’s not sex or court intrigue, but it IS the fascinating story of the unique motivations and a possible tapestry of events, knowledge and luck that led to the discovery of an important place at an opportune time. History addicts, enjoy!


Alyce said...

I really knew nothing about Hudson (other than he discovered a bay) prior to reading your review, so your review was educational. I'm not sure if I'd be drawn in by the topic on my own though.

She said...

Hmm, I don't really know all that much about Hudson; I wish I did! My schools all focused more on Sir Walter Raleigh and John Smith being in the 'Historic Triangle' and all. I've read some of the excerpts of John Smith's letters... what a trip! I would love to read a book about him. I think Disney totally misrepresented him. Oh, Pocahontas... the one Disney movie I refused to watch as a child due to its historical inaccuracy.

Wow, sorry for the rant, lol. I just have very strong feelings about some parts of history :p

Lenore Appelhans said...

I am a history channel addict when I am home in the states. But I do tend to skip the nautical bits.

Heather G. said...

I do enjoy a good historical novel!

Lisa said...

I totally watch the History Channel at random times! Guess I should look into this one.

ibeeeg said...

My hand has raised with the...me..me..I watch History Channel. I really do love learning about history.
This book is going on my to-read list.
Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

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