In a short, lively, engaging book, historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto raises two important questions: Why do we now conceive of the Americas as two distinct cultural and political regions, "America" (meaning the United States and Canada) and "Latin America," when for centuries most people envisioned "America" as a single entity? And why did Latin America, the more prominent American region throughout the colonial era, slip into the background as the United States rose to the status of world power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Inevitably, in a book that runs just over 200 pages, Fernandez-Armesto addresses these questions in bold and impressionistic strokes. I agree with another reviewer who noted that the book is most accessible to readers who already know a good deal about the topic.
While I find Fernandez-Armesto's telegraphic style excusable, the personal digressions and eccentric theories of the later chapters are somewhat jarring. Some passages are amusing: "I am a Catholic, so . . . It would comfort me to believe that capitalism and imperialism are peculiarly Protestant vices" (193). Others lead one to wonder where Fernandez-Armesto got his information: "Mainstream America lives in small towns, where almost everyone knows almost everyone else" (196)--in fact, the United States has been predominantly urban since c. 1920. Still other passages made me wonder if Fernandez-Armesto fully realized what he was implying. For example, he praises Uruguay for being "more progressive than Switzerland, for most of the twentieth century, in women's rights, labor laws, welfare provision, and economic regulation" (184-185). Switzerland, which did not grant women suffrage until 1971, hardly provides a benchmark by which to evaluate a nation's progressivism! The book does include some more insightful passages, such as one in which Fernandez-Armesto questions the prevailing stereotype that North America is Protestant and Latin America Catholic, but overall, I felt that Fernandez-Armesto dropped the ball after a couple of provocative and interesting opening chapters.