Early on in "Tales of the New World," Sabina Murray's collection of short stories about famous explorers, Ferdinand Magellan invites the ship's chronicler to look at the horizon with him. It is the 16th century and they have sailed beyond the edges of their maps to what Murray calls "the curbstone of the known." Magellan asks the chronicler to describe the scene in his journal, but the young man (a writer, and therefore a practiced procrastinator) complains that it's too hard. He likens the horizon to a big empty page, intimidating in its blankness.
"Then fill it with giants," Magellan suggests.
In real life, the chronicler does exactly that: He publishes a journal in which Magellan stars as the supersized hero, a figure more legend than man. In "Tales of the New World," however, Murray does the opposite: She shrinks these extraordinary giants into ordinary people. Magellan becomes a limping wisenheimer who never even makes it all the way around the world. Which turns out to be historically accurate -- who knew? In the story "Balboa," we're told that the ruthless conquistador is a blood-spilling, syphilis-spreading mass murderer, but what we're shown is a man on a walk with his beloved dog. It is on this walk, while taking a whiz off a boulder, that Balboa spots the as-yet-unnamed Pacific Ocean.
His peek at the Pacific -- he was the first European to see it from the New World -- is one of the book's few dramatized moments of discovery, an odd choice for a collection of short stories about the world's greatest explorers. It is as if Murray felt obligated to skip over her characters' life-changing decisions and definitive actions -- the meat and potatoes of conventional narrative -- to make these historical figures new and to fit them within the snug confines of the short story.
In the story "Full Circle Thrice," the reader does not know that the pirate William Dampier has marooned himself, or that he was even thinking about marooning himself, until after the fact, when he's floating upon the waves, looking up at the stars and thinking about God "asprawl on a nimbus couch." In another story, the Victorian naturalist Mary Kingsley's dangerous trek up Mount Cameroon is not described in Africa, where it happened, but is instead rendered as a dinner party anecdote that quickly fizzles into a pair of et ceteras, as if Murray can't be bothered to tell such a straightforward narrative of physical hardships. Instead, she focuses on the flicker of anxiety as her heroine struggles to pick the right dinner fork.
Like Chekhov, who appears in the collection's final story -- although, like Yahweh, he goes unnamed -- Murray seems most interested not in the giant moments but in the little ones, when we are most painfully, most wondrously ourselves.
Matt Burgess is the author of the novel "Dogfight, a Love Story," now available in paperback from Doubleday. He teaches at Macalester College.