cover image Sir Walter Raleigh and the Quest for El Dorado

Sir Walter Raleigh and the Quest for El Dorado

Marc Aronson. Clarion Books, $21.99 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-395-84827-2

Demonstrating the same keen passion for his subject as in his Art Attack, Aronson examines the life of a contradictory and complex Elizabethan figure, both poet and soldier. As in the best of biographies, the author expands his narrative beyond the details of a single life to draw a nuanced and compelling portrait of the times in which he lived. Aronson sets the stage with a preface describing the many, often conflicting symbolic meanings that the quest for El Dorado, the fabled South American city of gold, held for early modern Europeans. He deftly intersperses a chronological account of the often paradoxical details of Ralegh's life with the tumultuous changes taking place in early modern Europe. In this way Aronson provides a cultural context for a man who could write love sonnets to his queen and also mount bloody battles against the Irish. He makes no excuses for Ralegh, but vividly paints the rise of a gentleman farmer's son, with no real connections, to a court favorite. In another irony, because Ralegh was favored by the queen, she granted him a ""patent"" to stake claims in the New World yet he himself did not set sail: ""Ralegh remained near money and power, while his men sailed off the edges of the map."" Both fascinating and daunting, the account may be challenging for those with little prior knowledge of the period; however, the exceedingly well researched archival maps and prints, time line, ""Cast of Characters"" and extensive endnotes and bibliography will help budding historians get their bearings. Aronson's portrait of ""the first modern man"" is both provocative and tantalizing, revealing his subject as a person of canny wit and magnetism with all-too-human shortcomings. Age 11-up. (May)