The primary sources for this epic tale are the official transcript of and report on the testimomy of three of the survivors and Alzar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca's 1542 narrative report on his 8 year odyssey from what is now Tampa, Florida to Mexico City.
Andrés Reséndez retells this story in a hugely entertaining and informative way. The book is well written and fast paced. The numerous maps, illustrations, detailed footnotes and extensive bibliograpy are extremely helpful. Many of the footnotes add significantly to the narrative and could have been made part of the text. Reséndez demonstrates an easy mastery of both primary and secondary materials. His expertise enables him to set the original Narvaez expedition in context and to provide valuable background information on all the major players.
Beyond the almost miraculous survival of the Royal Treasurer Cabeza de Vaca, Captains Andres Dorantes and Alonso del Castillo, and the black slave, Estebanico, the central puzzle of this survival saga is how these four sole survivors out of a force of over 300 managed to go from essentially captive slaves to shamans and revered healers. Reséndez provides a reasonable explanation: Castillo's father was a physician from Salamanca, Spain's great university town, and that his exposure to basic medical practices and demeanour probably equipped him with sufficient knowledge to effectively deal with certain illnesses. Castillo's family heritage plus the practical extensions of what these well-travelled soldiers had seen or personally experienced - for example, the extracting of an arrow and the suturing of the wound - helps partially explain their transformation from slaves to successful shamans. Reséndez also persuasively suggests that the Christianity of at least three of the four, their openness to the miraculous plus their ability to maintain a certain humility helped cement their roles as healers.
In explaining how the four survivors became shamans, Reséndez does a much better job than Paul Schneider in his recent retelling of the same story (Brutal Journey: The Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America). (I reviewed Schneider's book two years ago and was struck by the limited way in which he addressed this issue. Schneider's book is still very good - but not nearly as informative as Resendez's.)
Reséndez also sketches out Cabeza de Vaca's almost modern and certainly more truly Christian views of the Indians and how to work with them. He sharply, unemotionally and objectively contrasts Cabeza de Vaca's enlightened views with the brutal, exploitative and counter-productive views of most leading Conquistadors - particularly Guzman and Mendoza - who were more interested in enslaving the indigenous population. Reséndez interestingly notes how Cabeza de Vaca's efforts to implement his more humane views when he became Governor of Rio de la Plata (Argentina) failed due to both the resistance of the Spanish settlers and the Indians. Latin America may have turned out a completely different place, if Cabeza de Vaca's approach to colonization had been adopted.