Book Review: The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

The Moor’s Account is a fascinating historical fiction novel based on a real-life journey to Florida by 300 Spanish conquistadors in 1528. The story is told by Mustafa, a Moroccan slave who accompanied his master on the expedition and was one of only four survivors.

I read The Moor’s Account as part of the 2022 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. February’s challenge was to read a book by an African author in honor of Black History Month. The author, Laila Lalami, was born and raised in Morocco and now lives in California. The Moor’s Account was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.

The Moor’s Account is essentially a retelling of the official account of the doomed expedition. The official chronicle was written by another survivor, a Spaniard named Cabeza de Vaca, and was one of the earliest, detailed records of the New World and the tribes that lived there. The official document mentions that one of the survivors was a slave from a city in Morocco, but no other information was included, leaving the author with a lot of room for poetic license.

Throughout the course of the book, we learn that Mustafa is the oldest of four children who rebelled against his father’s wish for him to become a notary, choosing a life of a merchant instead (which his father considered unsavory). Due to an unfortunate chain of events, Mustafa sold himself into slavery so his starving family could have the money to buy food.

Another chain of events leads to Mustafa being owned by a Castilian sea captain who’s about to embark on a journey to “La Florida.” They find a nugget of gold when they first land, which leads to a hairbrained scheme to head inland to find more.

The conquerors are soon conquered by a combination of a harsh environment (imagine what Florida was like in 1528!), hostile natives, disease, bad weather, and starvation. Mustafa and his fellow travelers are ill-suited to survive in the wilderness and have to rely on various Indian tribes to keep them alive. They lived this way for eight years.

the moors account

Throughout the story, Mustafa dreams of gaining his freedom and returning to his family in Morocco. He ultimately finds freedom and a family, but under different circumstances than he imagined.

I really enjoyed The Moor’s Account. The descriptions of unsettled America and the native tribes were fascinating and made me feel like I was actually there. And the constant hunger and discomfort and occasional shocking violence reinforced the idea that I could never be a settler. I never even liked camping!

In addition to a well-written setting, the characters were interesting, there was plenty of action, and I learned quite a bit about a period of history that I’ve never studied or even thought about.

I thought the theme of the conquerors being conquered was particularly insightful. When the Spaniards first arrived, they arrogantly pillaged tribal villages, gave everything they encountered an “official” Spanish name, and claimed all the land for the king. Their arrogance was quickly erased when the wilderness and its inhabitants brought them to their knees.

It was a little difficult to figure out where in America they were in certain parts of the story. Through this website I figured out that after they left Florida on crudely made rafts, they were shipwrecked on the Texas coast on what they called “The Island of Misfortune.” If you look at the map, you’ll notice that they wandered along the Texas coast with the nomadic tribes they were living with. This website will be helpful if you end up reading the book, or if you already read it and were as confused as I was.

All-in-all, The Moor’s Account is an excellent book and I think historical fiction fans will enjoy it.

How about you? Did you read a book by an African author in February? Tell us about it in the comments section.

Reminder: March’s challenge is to read a book by an Irish-American author. If you need some ideas, here are ten options.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

  1. I read ‘God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time’ by Desmond Tutu. He was man full of wisdom, love, and hope. Reading this gave me a bit more faith in humanity than I’ve had lately. Maybe we do have a chance. Highly recommended.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this book and absolutely loved it! I agree that Lalami does an amazing job of helping the reader see, feel, and smell the territories of that century. The arrogance – and cruelty – of the conquerors really gave me pause. That is not how we learned about our continent’s history in school, which makes me think much was glossed over about the European treatment of indigenous tribes. There is one section of the book where Mustafa becomes a healer, and he says some very wise things – about how just listening to someone in pain can bring a kind of relief, even when the medicine and science of the time have little to offer. I found that very beautiful – and true.

    I chose this book after reading Lalami’s more recent 2019 novel, The Other Americans. It is very different – a contemporary mystery, focusing on the life of a Moroccan immigrant family living in a small town in California. It was so compelling I picked up The Moor’s Account.

    I have a very modern book by an Irish author to recommend: 56 Days by Catherine Ryane Howard (Cork, Ireland). It is set in Dublin during the very beginning of the pandemic – a great mystery story that, literally, couldn’t have happened during “regular times.” Highly recommended!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I also really enjoyed The Moor’s Account! It was extremely well written and as has already been highlighted, really makes the reader feel like they are along for the journey. Even more so, it gave me a real appreciation for the complete desperation the Spaniards must have felt. But clearly, the highlight of the novel was to see and appreciate the exploration from a completely different lens that what most of us have learned. Ironically, while I was reading this book, my wife and I were down in San Antonio and visited 3 of the 5 original Spanish missions there. The Moor’s Account gave me a new perspective and appreciation for what life must have actually been like, for both the Spaniards as well as the natives. It was perfect timing!

    Liked by 1 person

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