ere’s one that I’ve read before (and enjoyed) and have now reread (and enjoyed even more) – Captain From Castile by Samuel Shellabarger. It was written in the mid 40s and a big hit back then. Of course, here’s the caveat for this – occasionally it is a bit racist (in the faintest of ways). It carries a bit of white man’s burden (where whites are given the task of civilizing everyone, and the Aztecs are stone age barbarians). Fortunately his value-judgements don’t happen often and are just minor stones in the road of a crackling good novel. You read old books you live in that time, with their views. Don’t get hung up on it.
So Pedro de Vargas is a young man living in Spain just as the New World is opening up. Columbus has returned, Cuba has been settled, but now there are rumors of lands even further west. But Pedro has no intention of going there – his father (a man-of-arms rooted in old-world thoughts) is sending his son to apprentice in Italy under the banner of one of the men he fought against in so many wars, a great honor. Pedro also has the eye of a beautiful girl in his town, a woman he aspires to with all the poetry and courtliness he can muster. But then Pedro comes in contact with the greedy aristocrat De Silva, saving Catana the fiery tavern wench from a couple of De Silva’s thugs. And Pedro’s family rejects De Silva’s offer to purchase their vineyard. And all this comes due when De Silva sics the Inquisition on the de Vargas family. In a truly frightening scene, the head inquisitor decides he will start his tortures with Pedro’s younger sister, but mercifully her young heart fails before they can truly harm her and she dies. Horrific!
But with Catana’s help (and her contacts among the hill bandits) the family is saved. Father and mother flee to Italy while Pedro, cut off from them but with a New World adventurer, catches a ship for Cuba and finds himself in Cortez’s great Mezzo-American expedition. And wouldn’t you know it – the love-struck Catana is in the train of the army, her lusty eyes on her handsome young captain from Castile.
The novel is a delight, both in the fictional aspects (the family’s struggles, the love interests, the romances, the anger and joy) and the history (the march into Mexico City, the bloody, desperate retreat, the final destruction of the Aztek empire). It’s even got a little Count of Monte Cristo in it for flavoring as events finally come together; Pedro’s dreams are realized (though they aren’t the dreams he started the novel with). But it is a fun read, historic and entertaining. If this is your bend, order this book up, get a bottle of red wine and a wheel of cheese and dive in. Santiago!