Laila Lalami fills in the historical record of Spanish conquest in Florida and Mexico with The Moor's Account, building her novel from a brief mention in Cabeza de Vaca's story of his explorations: "el cuarto [sobreviviente] se llama Estevanico, es negro olarabe, natural de Azamor" which translates: The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor."
In Lalami's hands, Estevanico becomes our narrator during an eight-year struggle for survival among the tribes of the southeast portion of the North American continent. He begins the expedition as a slave, but his skills at learning languages, adapting to primitive conditions, and his storytelling ability help him not only to survive but eventually to thrive while the majority of the Spaniards perish from disease, starvation, accidents, or murder.
A Moor from Spain, he is Muslim, and his given name, Mustafa ibn Muhammad, is the first thing taken from him when he sells himself into bondage to provide money for his family's survival. From a slave's vantage as Estebanico, he sees the underbelly of the wealth and power of sixteenth century Castilia: the many nameless whose labor supports them. The life of a slave turns on caprice: one day his master, whose fortunes are rising thanks in part to Mustafa's skills as a merchant, brings home a slave for his wife. Ramatullai becomes Mustafa's ally, friend, and love, but one day the master's gambling debts cannot be ignored, and Mustafa is sold to cancel them - to a nobleman enticed by rumors of the riches of New Spain across the ocean.
Through a combination of greed, ignorance, and fatal arrogance, the leaders of the expedition seeking the wealth of legendary Apalache squander their military advantage over the natives, make enemies of those who could assist them, and fall prey to the terrain, weather, and lack of food they had never imagined might be obstacles to success. Their weapons and tools dwindle, their clothing is used to make sails for rafts, they must slaughter and eat their beloved horses, and in the end, it is every man for himself.
They engage with many tribes, first as conquerors, then one leader to another, and finally as supplicants so desperate for a meal and protection from the cold that they become slaves themselves, scorned and beaten by the Indians who despise their incompetence and mistrust them. When they come to villages previously marauded by Spaniards - slave-takers and spreaders of disease - they find themselves less objects of curiosity than harbingers of trouble.
Mustafa and his master, Dorantes, remain together, becoming equals as they survive the challenges - until they come across another Spanish expedition. Reunited with Dorantes' fellow Castilians, their relationship reverts to master and man - only in the jungle could they be peers. Dorantes is all too willing to leave his life as an Indian behind, including forsaking his native wife and daughter, but Mustafa makes the most of his opportunities, and when at last he finds love with a native woman, he enlarges his dreams of home to include her.