~by Thad Carhart
When a copy of Thad Carhart's novel Across the Endless River was offered to me for review, it didn't take me long to decide to accept. Many people are at least vaguely familiar with the story of Sacagawea and her vital assistance in the Lewis and Clark expedition but significantly fewer people (including myself) know much about her son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, who was born on that trip. While Across the Endless River is Carhart's first novel, he is also the author of the non-fiction work The Piano Shop on the Left Bank about which I have heard very good things.
Across the Endless River is told through a mix of narrative, letters, and journal entries. It begins with Sacagawea and her husband Toussaint Charbonneau accompanying Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their Voyage of Discovery. Soon after, her son Jean-Baptiste is born. The book then follows Baptiste as he grows up, splitting his time between the white man's world of St. Louis and the tribes along the Missouri river, never quite fitting in in either place. However, he does develop an impressive competency in several languages and his knowledge of the land, people, and animal life makes him a valuable guide on the frontier. It is those skills, and his generally personable nature, that makes Baptiste an ideal companion to Friedrich Paul Wilhelm, Duke of Württemberg, travelling in America in order to study its natural history and to collect artifacts and biological specimens. And so, Baptiste embarks with Paul on his own journey of discovery, traveling to Europe to assist with the Duke's collection only to discover that once again he doesn't quite fit in, but that he can act as a bridge between two very different worlds.
Carhart has done an excellent job of taking the few definite facts regarding the life of Jean-Baptiste and filling in the blanks with believable speculation. He also manages to work in a fair amount of American and European history; I feel like I've learned quite a bit without even really trying--a good sign in a historical novel in my opinion. I particularly enjoyed the time spent on St. Louis, since I recently visited there, but also on the American frontier in general. The sections regarding Europe didn't capture me as thoroughly, mostly because I've covered very similar territory before and Carhart hasn't particularly added anything new. However, I will admit that I hadn't really realized before the extent the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte influenced the entire continent for quite some time even after they'd passed.
I think the reason I didn't enjoy Across the Endless River as much as I was expecting to is due more to personal preferences more than it is to anything inherently wrong with the book. Particularly, I'm thinking of the writing style, which is very straight forward, but at the same time seems to be very much lacking in description. However, Carhart's knowledge of and research into the time period is readily apparent and his interest in history and his love of Paris is obvious. Unfortunately, his characters are a little flat. Across the Endless River seemed more like a series of related vignettes rather than a cohesive novel, which is not necessarily a good or bad thing in and of itself, but occasionally it did seem like I was missing out on some important events and details. Overall, the life of Jean-Baptiste made for an interesting story and history lesson even if I wasn't taken by the book as a whole. I'd certainly be willing to take a look at another of Carhart's works.