I have always been attracted to chronicles of exploration. I credit my general positive attitude toward reading history to my coming across Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose. The account of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traversing the American continent in search of an all-water water route to the Pacific Ocean was one of the most engaging books of any kind I have ever read. Page after page of determination, heroism, perseverance in the face of deprivation--this is the stuff of new worlds.
A friend recently recommended Penguin's The Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition, a short account of a Spanish explorer's travels in Mexico and southeastern United States in the mid-16th century. These journals, written after nine years of unbelievable trials in the wilds of North America, made Lewis and Clark's voyage seem like a pleasure cruise. Out of several hundred explorers originally sent to claim areas of the continent for Spain, very few survived to tell the tale. The short account (barely 100 pages) catalogues terrors experienced by the expedition including multiple shipwrecks, terrifying storms, hundreds of attacks by violent natives, starvation, disease, and cannibalism. And despite all this, the account seems subdued, respectful, and determined, just as its author must have been to survive this ordeal.
People can not only survive such trials, but find in them a purpose and meaning. One of the more outstanding features of the Chronicle is the author's continual offering of praise to God for delivering them in the narrowest of circumstances. At no point does he resort to blaming God for his predicament, but rather depends utterly on Him at every step for his most basic needs. That is an amazing faith rooted in experience far beyond anything in which I ever hope to find myself.
This Chronicle, like Undaunted Courage, opened my eyes to a world I barely recognize and offer me a glimpse of how far the human spirit can be pushed and remain whole.