Friday, November 13, 2009

Across the Endless River by Thad Carhart

"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."

Though the years Jean-Baptiste spent in Europe are largely undocumented, the author does a good job of filling in the blanks and helping us imagine what it may have been like to be this young man stuck between two worlds. The descriptions in the book are enjoyable and paint a vivid picture. Even though the author seems to know the history and the facts he fictionalized still fit with the story, the book plods along for 300 pages with almost no plot. Nothing every really happens and we see so much of Jean-Baptistes world as if he was just an observer. I began to wonder why the author bothered to write a book about this young man at all.

In the end, I did enjoy Carhart's writing and his beautiful descriptions, but the characters fell flat for me and in a story like this, the characters just have to shine.

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