Conquest is the history of the defeat of the Aztec Empire (hereafter called the Mexica) by Spanish Conquistadors under the command of Hernando Cortes in 1519 through 1521. It is the story of one empire ascending, the Spanish, and one at its peak and perhaps beginning its decline, the Mexica, whose gold and land in its fall fed the explosive growth of power in those who had subdued them.
The Mexica, led by Emperor Montezuma, held 125,000 square miles of land (more than 5 times the size of Pennsylvania), and had built a city, Tenochtitlan, that was home to over 150,000 people. The Conquistadors thought it the most beautiful city they had ever seen.
The Mexica gold and featherwork and their picture paintings were exquisite, their farming productive and sustainable, their ruling structure stable, their warrior’s reputation fearsome, their poetry superb.
However, they sacrificed human beings to the God of the Sun and their limbs were eaten by the powerful so that they could become more powerful. Sixty thousand skulls decorated racks in the central pyramid. The priests wore the skins of their victims and dyed their own skin black. When Cortes landed near present day Vera Cruz, Indian allies flocked to him. The Mexica were hated.
The Mexica had two additional weaknesses. They “had constructed their history on a myth of eventual cataclysm” (28). They believed their lives were always on the brink of disaster unless they made all the right choices for “nothing in Mexico was seen as happening by chance (180).” Their Gods were too numerous and capricious. Man always had to interpret the many signs they left and then had to choose just the right path of action. One bad choice could bring disaster. Second, they were led by Montezuma, a man who “considered flight, who considered hiding”, upon hearing of the invader’s horses’ “high as rooftops” and their dogs’ “blazing yellow eyes” and of their steel swords and lances, helmets, breastplates and of their cannon (180).
Then they had Cortes as their adversary, someone who “had that capacity of all successful men of being able to conceal his real intentions” (135). He had emerged from Medellin in Spain, a backwater dominated by “thefts, murders, illegal imprisonments, brawls, acts of menace and the improper occupation of lands” (121). He had received a further “education in brutality” in the Spanish conquest of Cuba (133) where he had learned that “absolute ruthlessness sometimes pays absolutely” (132). More than just a feral adventurer, he had a firm grounding in Latin and the Law. He was a gifted speaker, fearless but prudent, charismatic, deeply religious, a perfect man of his time and place who was convinced that his duty was to convert Indians to the one, true faith, a man supremely confident in the superiority of his Spanish heritage but also someone who desired gold, who in speaking to one of Montezuma’s diplomats, told him that “gold was good for a bad heart” and that “some of his men were ill with that complaint” (178).
What followed was inevitable: misunderstanding, Spanish arrogance matched with Mexica indecisiveness, overreach and overreaction, threat, murder, massacre, Mexica resistance, destruction. The death of Montezuma, the Night of Sorrows when the Spanish retreated along a causeway, the terrible torch-lit battle that ensued, the siege of Tenochtitlan, its fall, the enslavement of the Mexica, their demographic collapse, 300 years of Spanish colonial rule.
The experience of the Mexica (and later the Spanish and all other Empires) is “one reminder that any interpretation of human evolution based on the idea of unilinear progress forward is an illusion” (91).
Few histories better describe worlds this strange that existed close to us both geographically and in time. Thomas’s book is a great narrative and as such is filled with scenes of both beauty and horror that will stay with you.
Marine biologist and writer, Shannon Leone Fowler, expresses her passage of mourning in her memoir “Traveling with Ghosts” with such maturity, wisdom, and grace that it is incredibly moving. It is quite a touching journey. Although this book is about loss, it is an uplifting and heartening story. Then only twenty-eight years old while backpacking in Thailand, her fiancé, Sean – love of her life and her partner in adventure – was stung by a box jellyfish and died immediately on the beach after a late afternoon swim in paradise.
The picture painted of the romance of the free-spirited couple almost makes you dismiss the seriousness of the relationship at first glance. Upon Sean’s death, however, she details the stages of her grief with such humility and candor that the reader recognizes the depth of their love.
After Sean’s death, already in a dark and vulnerable place, Shannon travels alone to places she planned to visit with Sean to remote and not-so-pleasant places in the world. It was as if she could not be more distraught, but she wanted to feel the agony more deeply in her solitary travel. She didn’t want to further torture herself; it was if she needed to experience the places and travel through the pain. She goes to Poland, Bosnia, Romania, and more. She visits Auschwitz on a cold and rainy day. Her vivid description of the Holocaust memorial with the personal items shown and stories told is so vivid. Given the wide-open place from which she expresses herself, her account of Auschwitz is one of the most moving I have read. It is almost as if it deserves only to be described by someone at the depths of their own despair to truly feel it.
She also tells the story of the two young Israeli women who witness her with Sean’s body right after his death. Shannon is helpless; the two women stay with her for days until she is able to get through all of the paperwork for the body to be released. Shannon realizes much later that these two women, who become dear friends, were following their Shiva rules on how to handle death. She describes, “The girls had let me initiate the conversations, or they’d let me choose to be quiet. They made sure to talk about Sean, to use his name and to say it often…they’d brought me food, and encouraged me to keep eating and drinking. And they’d done their best to avoid leaving me alone…they had even changed their flights to stay on the island until I was allowed to leave with Sean’s body. They changed their plans rather than leave me behind.” She found these rituals of death so meaningful and beautiful. She would have been lost without them. Her gratitude was immeasurable.
As she travels, she rebuilds; although, she still had a long way to go. She gradually gets herself back into her work and research, but even more slowly, she overcame her fear of getting back into the ocean. But she does heal, and her story is inspirational, remarkable, and incredibly brave. It was even encouraging because her passage teaches us that loved ones lost can be recognized in everyday experiences, near and far.
Hannah Tinti (The Good Thief) delivers a father-daughter saga with a twist.
We meet Samuel at the beginning of the book – he is a truck driver and takes his daughter Loo everywhere with him. Loo loves her life with her father. When Sam realizes that she is too isolated, he moves back to where he lived with his wife (Loo’s mother who died when she was young). Sam takes up fishing for a living and puts Loo in school.
Loo experiences ridicule and physical punishment by her classmates. Her father is the reason – his mysterious history she knows nothing about. Sam has a violent temper and how he wields it in the town makes pariahs of them both.
The “Twelve Lives” correspond to twelve bullet holes that have scarred over on Sam’s body. Each one has a story and as the book progresses we are drawn into the random, violent and criminal life that Sam has led. In NPR’s interview with the author she said, “. …one of the connections I made was between Samuel Hawley and the myth of Hercules - actually, the structure of the myth of Hercules with his 12 labors. So, I'm interested in heroes that are flawed. And I wanted to translate those 12 labors into the 12 lives of Samuel Hawley and show how sometimes you have to do really bad things to accomplish your goals.”
Can a bad person be a good parent? Can a violent man atone for his past? Is Sam redeemed in the book? Can Loo learn a different path…how to live without her anger? These are provocative questions that are left for interpretation.
An interesting and unpredictable fiction – you cannot see around the corners.
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop