I knew very little about Captain James Cook, the late 18th century circumnavigator, going into the book which is kind of a shame considering all that he accomplished. My interest in fictional stories involving the British navy during the Napoleonic war, made the facts of Cook's career and voyages that much more interesting as his personal story and adventures are almost better than fiction.
He rose to British Navy Captain from an impoverished childhood in Yorkshire England, an incredible feat in and of itself, and in 3 voyages charted most of the Pacific Ocean (Notable ports of call- Tahiti, New Zealand Australia among others), and pushed the boundaries of human exploration in both the Antarctic and Arctic. His life was ended violently and bizarrely by being killed and then cut into pieces by Hawaiian natives at the end of his 3rd voyage.
Tony Horwitz structures the book as part biography, part history lesson, and part travel book. Every other chapter takes place in the present day with Horwitz following along on Cook's routes and comparing how the places Cook visited have changed in the ensuing 200+ years. He also spends a lot of time examining various attitudes about Cook. For many native Polynesians Cook opened the book on European involvement in their affairs and in most cases the dissolution of their culture. Horwitz's take on these detractors is that while the ultimate fate of many of the islands that Cook visited was not positive, Cook was an explorer and nothing more with no imperial orders of motivations. And that while it is clear he mishandled some encounters with natives, his journals reflect a man who was before his time in his opinions about the value of all human experience. I.E. Horwitz is overwhelmingly a fan of Cooks and presents a positive view of the Captain while still addressing the downside of his explorations.
Not only does the book flip back and forth through time, Horwitz's tone also switches between a journalistic presentation of the historical facts and a more casual and humorous account of his own travels as he follows Cook's journeys complete with a comic-relief friend who tags along with him. Along with its fascinating subject, the injection of humor and modern day travelogue makes the book very readable.