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Book Review

This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

In 1527, a fleet of Spanish ships sails from Cuba to explore Florida. Of the 600 passengers, only four survive. They are Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes and Dorantes’ slave, Esteban. They stay alive by taking on the roles of medicine men for the Native Americans of the Gulf Coast.

The Native Americans become dependant on the miraculous cures of these men and refuse to let them leave. After seven years with the Gulf Coast Native Americans, the men flee northward. They know they won’t last through the cold winter without help, so they take refuge with the Avavare Native Americans of the east Texas hill country.

A Native American boy named Chakoh is 14 years old when the Men-From-the-Sun come to his poor village. The men speak of a new god, unlike any Chakoh knows, and they pray to him for healing. Esteban, the slave, befriends Chakoh and helps the boy learn Spanish. When the Spaniards prepare to return to Mexico, Cabeza de Vaca invites Chakoh to join them on the journey. Chakoh consults his father, who urges him to go and then return home. He tells the boy to learn how to guide and feed their tribe with the help of the Spaniards’ god.

Chakoh is anxious to see the wonders of Mexico and taste its bountiful food. Esteban has many adventures on the trip, such as drinking tea that makes him sick, amusing the Native Americans with his buffalo dance and feigning a near-death illness. These and other sacrificial acts on his part keep the Spaniards alive and in good standing with the Native Americans when they begin to fall out of favor.

Esteban tells Chakoh that he hasn’t been to his home since he was a child. He says perhaps he will have to walk the rim of the world forever. Chakoh likes and admires Esteban, never realizing the man is a slave. Chakoh has strong opinions about slaves, convinced that any man who would allow himself to be a slave has no honor or dignity and has a weak heart.

A tribe known as the Buffalo People likes Esteban, and the slave decides he might like to stay with them rather than continuing on to Mexico. When his master, Dorantes, contemplates staying as well, Esteban decides to continue with the rest of the party. Dortantes, not willing to give up Esteban, also rejoins the group.

When a Native American woman tells the Spaniards about wealthy people to the north, they are convinced the have found the famed Seven Cities of Cibola. The Spaniards eagerly return to Mexico to tell of their discovery. When they arrive in Mexico, Chakoh is sent to an abbey where the brothers care for him, feed him well and teach him their prayers and rituals.

He misses Esteban and finally goes looking for him. He hopes Esteban has received the honor the Spaniards promised him on the completion of their journey. Instead, he finds a bitter Esteban, who has been rewarded by being put in charge of maintaining the viceroy’s stables. Chakoh finally realizes his friend is a slave, and he doesn’t know how to react to this information. He calls Esteban a coward, but Esteban tries to convince him that he, Chakoh, could just as easily end up a slave himself.

Chakoh and Esteban are assigned to guide two priests back to Cibola. Their relationship remains strained. Esteban explains the way he became a slave and how he had to do it to save his family. Chakoh begins to understand Esteban’s plight. The boy still plans to return to Mexico, where the food is plentiful and living is easier, even though Esteban urges him to return to his home.

Esteban goes ahead of the group to scout. He plans to escape to join the Buffalo People. The priests send Chakoh to find Esteban, and the boy makes him promise to guide them to Cibola. Esteban keeps his word, demonstrating he has more honor than most men Chakoh has met. The unfriendly Cibolans kill Esteban before he can achieve his dream of freedom. Chakoh finally realizes he needs to return to his tribe.

Christian Beliefs

The Spanish characters often make the sign of the cross and say rosaries. Some are devout believers who desire to teach Chakoh and other Native Americans about God. Some urge him to return to his home so he can teach his people about God. Others, like the shipwrecked Spaniards, have more dubious motives. They proclaim themselves medicine men and pray over the sick in Native American villages to keep themselves from starving or freezing to death. They manage to demonstrate some healing abilities that impress the natives from village to village. Chakoh is very curious and anxious to learn about the Spanish god, believing this new god may be more powerful than the gods his people follow.

Other Belief Systems

Chakoh’s people believe in gods such as the Spirit-of-Misfortune and the Spirit-of-Good-Things. They believe man came out of the earth, and Chakoh’s father says they must not move on from their village because this is the land the gods gave them. They believe medicine men have the magical power to heal. They seek signs to show them how to proceed with decisions. Chakoh’s father gives him a necklace for good luck and protection before he leaves for Spain. Chakoh sometimes tries to add his own spells to the prayers of the Spanish men, believing he can increase the strength of their magic that way. Esteban tells Chakoh the boy’s tribal gods are basically the same as the Spanish god, just with different names. Esteban is a skeptic, calling the Lord a Spanish god.

Dorantes mistreats Esteban emotionally and physically. Esteban explains to Chakoh that some of the country’s Native American slaves were captured because they refused to give up their own gods and become Christians. Chakoh initially believes slaves are cowards without honor because they allow themselves to be mastered by someone.

Authority Roles

The Spanish survivors deceive the Native Americans repeatedly in their efforts to get back to Mexico. The haughty, mean-spirited Dorantes rebukes Esteban frequently, even though the slave has often saved his life. Esteban keeps his word at all costs, demonstrating dignity and honor and altering Chakoh’s stereotypes about slaves.


A Cibolan’s arrow kills Esteban. The scene is not bloody or graphic.



Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments/Notes

This fictional story is based on real people and events from the 1500s.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

9 and up


Betty Baker






Record Label



Harper and Row Publishers


On Video

Year Published





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