Thursday, December 10, 2009
Across the Endless River
Publisher's Summary. Born in 1805 on the Lewis & Clark expedition, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau was the son of the expedition’s translators, Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau. Across The Endless River evokes the formative years of this mixed-blood child of the frontier, entering the wild and mysterious world of his boyhood along the Missouri. Baptiste is raised both as William Clark’s ward in St. Louis and by his parents among the villages of the Mandan tribe on the far northern reaches of the river.
In 1823, eighteen-year-old Baptiste is invited to cross the Atlantic with the young Duke Paul of Württemberg, whom he meets on the frontier. During their travels throughout Europe, Paul introduces Baptiste to a world he never imagined. Increasingly, Baptiste senses the limitations of life as an outsider; only Paul’s older cousin, Princess Theresa, understands the richness of his heritage. Their affair is both passionate and tender, but Theresa’s clear-eyed notions of love, marriage, and the need to fashion one’s own future push Baptiste to consider what he truly needs.
In Paris, he meets Maura Hennesy, the beautiful and independent daughter of a French-Irish wine merchant. Baptiste describes his life on the fast-changing frontier to Maura, and she begins to imagine a different destiny with this enigmatic American. Baptiste ultimately faces a choice: whether to stay in Europe or to return to the wilds of North America. His decision will resonate strongly with those who today find themselves at the intersection of cultures, languages, and customs
Review. by Renee A.J. Across the Endless River is an articulate, extraordinarily well-written historical novel set in the 1800s, which provides a unique view of both the American frontier and Europe through the life experiences of the central character, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. The opening scene begins with the guttural cries of Sacagawea; the 15-year old Shoshone Indian wife to French trapper Charbonneau is immersed in a painful and life-threatening labor. As the Shoshone translator for the 1805 Lewis and Clark expedition, if she dies, the party will not be able to negotiate with the tribe to obtain the horses needed to cross the mountains. Her husband, Charbonneau, is of little help during her labor, but Captain Lewis remains with her. Through the aid of Lewis and the help of both Indian and white medicines Sacagawea is able to give birth to a healthy baby boy and to recover afterwards.
Charbonneau names his son, Jean-Baptiste, after his French grandfather. “His father called him Baptiste, but his mother called him Pompy. “Little Chief,” the Shoshone name she chose to honor the tribe into which she had been born. “Baptiste’s birth becomes the pattern for his life – he survives and thrives by interweaving knowledge and philosophy from both his Indian and European heritages to become a unique individual – not like either of his parents, but taking the best from both. The baby’s becomes a young adventurer, as his parents continue to travel with the Lewis and Clark expedition during his first 16 months of life. When the successful expedition returns, white traders and Indians alike are amazed that Sacagawea and her infant were able to survive. It is noted that the success gave Sacagawea, her trader husband, Charbonneau and Baptiste great status.
Later, Captain Clark stands as baby Baptiste’s godfather and he encourages Sacagawea and Charbonneau to make sure that their mixed-blood son learns “the white man’s ways.” During his early childhood Pompy stays with his parents – learning the ways of his Indian heritage and his French trader father as they trade with various Indian tribes in what was Oregon country and the Louisiana Purchase in 1800s America. When Pompy is five, his parents send him to live with his Captain Clark in St. Louis and he becomes Baptiste. He learns to wear hard shoes, socks, shirts, corduroy pants, a woolen coat, and a brimmed hat. Languages and writing came to him easily - French, English, and the languages of several Indian tribes. Baptiste learns to keep his eyes and ears open and understands that he is different. Like many of us, these basic lessons become central to his life experience.
Over the following years, Baptiste adopts the habit of keeping a journal, which serves as the point of view for Across the Endless River. Although he stays in St. Louis under the sponsorship of Captain Clark and the tutelage of an English schoolteacher, he spends the warm months each year with his parents traveling up the Missouri River and becomes comfortable alternating between the “white man’s world” the Indian/French tracker lifestyle of living off the land. As a man of 18, Baptiste is often paid to accompany expeditions of traders, explorers, and others who want to travel up the river or through Indian lands. Thus, it is no surprise when Baptiste and his father are hired to accompany Paul Wilhelm, a duke from a German-speaking kingdom east of France, who wants to acquire Indian goods and explore the natural habitat of the American frontier. The immense herds of buffalo, wide open lands, canoe travels, Indian hospitality, and expert aid from Baptiste ensures that Paul obtains the experience and specimens that he seeks. At the end of his expedition, Paul asks Baptiste to accompany him back to his European home to help him organize his collection of specimens and prepare his notes for publication as a book. Captain Clark encourages Baptiste to take advantage of the opportunity to travel in Europe as the duke’s protégé. Baptiste accepts the invitation and the remainder of this novel details a uniquely American view of Europe – it’s people, terrain, royalty, architecture – and of course the two romantic relationships that our hero develops over the five year journey.
The author uses this European journey to advance the idea that there is much to gain if one partakes in the surrounding multiple worlds and cultures. Specifically, the story aptly illustrates that travel “opens the door to chance” – to encounter new experiences, meet new people, and obtain new insights will lead one to a richly rewarding life well lived. I look forward to reading more of Thad Carhart’s nuanced and quietly entrancing writing!
Publisher: Doubleday; (September 1, 2009), 320 pages
Advance Review Copy Provided Courtesy of the publisher and FSB Associates.