(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The subtitle of Journey to the Sky accurately describes the book: “A Novel About the True Adventures of Two Men in Search of the Lost Maya Kingdom.” The two men are John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, pioneering nineteenth century explorers of the Maya ruins whose writings and drawings, respectively, provided the basis for Highwater’s fictionalized account. Stephens, a disaffected lawyer from a rich New York family, met Catherwood in London, became his friend, and persuaded the British architect to move his business and family to New York. Later, when Stephens decided to go exploring for the Maya, his friend happily signed on as artist. Journey to the Sky, a combination of novel, biography, travelogue, and cultural analysis, concentrates on Stephens and Catherwood’s first expedition.

The two board the Mary Ann in New York on October 3, 1839, and, after a month-long voyage culminating in a horrendous tropical storm, arrive in Belize. There the British colonial administrator, Colonel Archibald MacDonald, entertains them royally, since Stephens is traveling officially as a United States diplomat, appointed by President Martin Van Buren. Behind Stephens’s back, the conniving Briton not only has his eyes on additional American territory but also sends out a rival archaeological expedition, led by Patrick Walker and Lieutenant John Caddy. The stop in Belize, however, has one positive result: Stephens and Catherwood hire Augustin, who proves to be a resourceful and faithful servant despite his cutthroat appearance.

From Belize, Stephens and Catherwood sail to Izabal, Guatemala, to begin their overland expedition. Hiring mules and mule drivers, they cross infamous Mico Mountain, the narrow trail a quagmire fed by frequent heavy rains. Once they are into the wild interior, the head muleteer starts disputing decisions and demanding renegotiation of his contract. Rising early, he and the mule train leave behind Stephens, Catherwood, and Augustin, who, short on supplies, chase the mule train for days. Luckily, they find hospitable villages along the way, but in one village they are captured by a drunken...

(The entire section is 883 words.)