Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Review - Across the Endless River

Carhart, Thad. Across the Endless River. New York: Doubleday, 2009. 308 pp, $17.79 in hardcover. Review by Joyce Salisbury, Central Michigan University.

Across the Endless River, by Thad Carhart, is a fictional account of Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau’s visit to Europe. Charbonneau was the son of Sacajawea and French fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau, who accompanied the Corps of Discovery led by Lewis and Clark. Unlike most historical fiction where the main characters are fictional encountering historical individuals, in Carhart’s novel, the two main characters, Baptiste and Duke Paul of Wittenburg, are historical characters while the individuals they meet (for the most part) are fictional, “composites of those who would have been in Paul’s social ambit.” The danger of this is that it is easy to read this as a biography and forget that from the moment they set sail for Europe, little to nothing is known of Baptiste’s experiences. From a historical perspective, however, the facts upon which the story is built are accurate. A short “Author’s Notes” helps clarify where fiction takes over from fact.

The book is well-written; I would even use the word “charming” to describe this book. There is little tension or dramatic climaxes (although the narrative about the young Mandans’ initiation into manhood is dramatic and graphic as is the visceral excitement of a buffalo hunt); rather this is a pleasant account of Baptiste’s experiences and viewing Europe through the eyes of a young man who has lived both the Native American life and been educated in St. Louis. Baptiste himself is a combination of na├»ve and worldly. He is young, eighteen, when he embarks on his European experience with Duke Paul. He has led visitors as they explored the American West and interacted with various Indian tribes, but in Europe he is totally at a loss to understand that world. Over the five years he lives in Europe, assisting Paul with his book about American natural history, he learns about life and love.

The book provides an interesting look at life in Europe during the 1820s. Four years after Napoleon’s death in exile, he is still of paramount interest to the people not only in France, but throughout Europe. We get insights into the interest in natural history, music, and politics through Baptiste’s experiences. The life lived in harmony with nature in America is compared and contrasted with the refined life in Europe.

This book should be of interest to individuals interested in early nineteenth century American and Europe, Native American life, international politics, natural science and more. For example, anyone concerned with the repatriation of Native American goods (i.e., NAGPRA) may be interested in this account of how so many Native American artifacts spread throughout the globe and the attitudes of those collecting them. Baptiste’s growing discomfort with the scientific, almost clinical, handling of these artifacts is a theme throughout the latter part of the book.

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