History buffs will know sixteenth-century Spaniard Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca as one of the first Europeans to explore Texas, but even they will find surprises in A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca, by Mexico City native Andres Resendez. Cabeza de Vaca (yes, that would mean “cow’s head”) sets off as the royal treasurer on a 1527 voyage to settle the broad crescent of land stretching from Florida to Mexico; it is the Age of Exploration, and there’s the New World to exploit for slaves and gold. But bad weather and incompetence lead to disaster, and by the spring of 1529, fewer than twenty members of the expedition are still alive. Shipwrecked on Texas soil, they are taken in by natives around Galveston—and it’s here that Cabeza de Vaca’s story gets interesting. Made a slave, he wanders naked with his itinerant captors, often subsisting on spiders, lizards, and worms. Then, incredibly, he is reunited with three other castaways (two Spaniards and a Moroccan), and the four become revered as healers among Texas tribes before finally reconnecting with European explorers in 1536. Cabeza de Vaca’s writings, the basis for A Land So Strange, offer fascinating insight into the cultures he encountered, but it is Reséndez’s clever rewriting of his ordeal—as a survivor’s tale—that is most memorable. Edutainment trumps scholarship again. Basic Books, $26.95