Discovering the Discoverer

Columbus: Opening up the New World
By Stephen Feinstein
(Enslow Publishers, Berkeley Heights, NJ, 2010, $)

Once revered as the man who discovered America, Columbus is a controversial figure today. When he arrived in the present-day Bahamas, he saw its inhabitants, the Arawak, as people he could easily subdue, convert to Catholicism, and enslave. The Spanish settlers who followed him to the islands instituted a brutal rule, forcing the Arawak to work and cutting of their ears, noses, or hands if they disobeyed. By 1552, just sixty years past Columbus’s journey, all of the Arawak had died, either of work or European diseases.

In Columbus: Opening up the New World, Stephen Feinstein examines the explorer’s life and times for middle-grade readers. He makes the best of what little information exists about Columbus’s early life in Genoa, conjuring up the excitement and bustle of the 15th century port city. He provides necessary background information about such related subjects as Henry the Navigator and the Spanish Inquisition without disrupting the narrative. When Feinstein describes Columbus’s efforts in the New World, he does not flinch from the cruelties of colonial life.

At the end of the book, Feinstein discusses Columbus’s legacy, especially the exchange of goods between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. He lists both the benign consequences of the explorer’s journey – including cocoa, potatoes, and other crops – and the horrific ones, including the annihilation of the Arawak people and the enslavement of Africans in the islands’ plantations. However, Feinstein finds himself in murky waters when he begins discussing Columbus’s contributions to intellectual history. His suggestion that European conquest of the New World inspired both the Protestant Reformation and The Communist Manifesto seems a bit far-fetched, especially for a children’s biography. While intriguing, these hypotheses deserve to be explored in three or five-hundred-page books of their own.

Should we continue to honor Christopher Columbus with a national holiday every October? Should we celebrate or repudiate his efforts? After reading Columbus, children will form their own opinions about the explorer.

Dorothy A. Dahm

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