The Memory of Fire trilogy, of which book is the first part, recounts the history of the Americas (with special emphasis on Latin America) through the unique device of breaking it up into bite-sized pieces. The short anecdotes that make up the book are drawn from historical sources, each one noted carefully, though Galeano dramatizes or condenses them to some extent. The result, far from being disjointed, provides a good idea of the history of the Americas.
The book starts with First Voices, which includes creation myths from several different pre-Columbian traditions, including the Maya, Aztecs and Toltecs, Inca, Haida, Araucan, and several other. Though not history in a literal sense, its inclusion starts the book off with a strong sense of the people and land that is about to be changed. It also sets up themes and imagery which will continue to echo through the history of the continent.
The clock starts ticking in 1492, in the section called Old New World, with Columbus' fleet and its sailors anxious to reach a destination, any destination. The arrival of Columbus in Guanahani brings change not only to the Americas but also to Europe, where the religious and political orders need to cope with and make the best of the discoveries that come from the new land that has been discovered. Columbus' few voyages give way to more and larger explorations. The news and rumors of gold, even cities of gold, makes the Americas a desirable destination, both for soldiers of fortune from Europe and the governments who perceive the advantage such a source of wealth can bring them.
Galeano's breaking of the history up into smaller segments proves quite powerful at giving a sense of the dynamic at work in the history of the Americas and also of some of the unique characters involved in those events.