• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #36: The Island of Seven Cities


Spoiler alert: Canada

I'm a little hesitant to categorize Chiasson's book as non-fiction, as I'm largely unconvinced by his arguments. An architect, not a historian, Chiasson claims to have stumbled across unexplained stone ruins at the northern tip of Cape Breton Island on the Canadian Atlantic Coast. This book is his argument that the ruins mark sites of Chinese settlement dating back to the fifteenth century, decades earlier than the voyages of Columbus or Cabot.


I do enjoy a good perambulation through the mists of early human exploration, scraping together shreds of evidence from the writing of monks and the scribbled maps of adventurous fisherman. Speculation is always a part of this kind of exercise, and Chiasson brings plenty of that to his book. Where a more prudent historian might piece together a more measured set of conclusions, Chiasson places more value on his hypothesis than the evidence, and it shows in his writing. The fascinating premise - Chinese contact with eastern North America half a millennium ago - leads him to make some pretty wild jumps of reasoning.


It's a fun ride, though, complete with attempts to link the linguistic and sartorial remnants of local indigenous Mi'kmaq culture to medieval Chinese antecedents. And the discussion of China's abandonment of its early attempts at maritime commerce and exploration is fascinating and worthwhile. But in the end, it's a fanciful tale wrapped in a veneer of historic validity. It’s written with gusto and certitude, with more than a tincture of bravado. You have to admire that.

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