Picks and Pans Review: Wilderness at Dawn

updated 06/07/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/07/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Ted Morgan

Wilderness at Dawn is the bloodstained story of the settling of the North American continent, from prehistoric man's arrival through the Europeans' Renaissance-era explorations to 18th-century America's land-happy expansion. Rather than concentrating on the familiar historical figures, however, Morgan focuses on the everyday people who lived—and died—trying to tame the land.

A Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist and a biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Morgan does not soften history with nostalgia; he uses primary documents such as archaeological discoveries, diaries and court records to tell an unflinchingly honest and often violent tale. For example, he recalls the outcome of one of the first trials on the continent: Spanish colonialists in what is now New Mexico punished 70 resisting Indians by ordering that each have one foot cut off. He also writes of a starving Jamestown, Va., settler who, in the winter of 1609-10, "murdered his pregnant wife, threw the unborn child into the James River, chopped up the mother, salted her and ate her." And he notes that, despite an egalitarian image, Quaker William Penn actually owned slaves. A deft and commanding storyteller, Morgan weaves his well-researched anecdotes into a seamless, often stunning narrative of nobility and brutality. Nonetheless, all but the most voracious history buffs will be exhausted by the seemingly endless cruelties that led to the birth of this nation. (Simon & Schuster, $27.50)"

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