Thursday, October 22, 2009

Across the Endless River by Thad Carhart

When I mention that I don’t know much about American history, there are certain periods of it that basically know next to nothing. The time of Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark expedition and year immediately following belong to that ‘next to nothing’ category. I know it’s a sad state of things but I am trying to correct that situation by reaching out for books set in those times to help me know more. Across the Endless River by Thad Carhart is one such book.

This historical novel is primarily about Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea and a French translator Toussaint Charbonneau born during the famous voyage of Lewis and Clark. It takes place partly in America and partly in Europe. Jean-Baptiste, also called Pompy in the language of his mother’s tribe, the Mandans, is a bi-racial child who spends his early childhood between two worlds, Sacagawea’s Native American world and the world of captain Clark in St. Louis among the ‘civilized’ children. His life isn’t easy but neither is it nightmarish and coming from such a mixed family, Jean-Baptiste has an advantage of knowing not one language but many, including French, English and multitude of tribal languages. This knowledge of language as well as various tribal cultures places him in the company of a young Duke of Wurtemberg, Paul with whom he departs to Europe when Jean is eighteen. He crosses the Endless River (Atlantic Ocean) in search for new experiences and maybe even a new life. What he finds there and learns there may actually make him long for America, his true home.

Mr. Carhart had been a published author before Across the Endless River but this book was my first experience of his writing. I therefore really had no expectations towards the novel other than the fact that it’s historical fiction. Sometimes (or most of the time) it’s better to start a book with an open mind expecting nothing but getting back a lot more. Across the Endless River did give me an inside look to what Sacagwea’s life might have been as well as what a chasm divided the new World and the Old World (and I’m not talking about the physical distance here). I think I enjoyed the comparison of the true wilderness of the Frontier with what the Europeans thought to be the wild places where they lived. I never gave it a thought myself but while reading the passages describing the prairies and hills where there is nothing but the wild nature as far as you can see I did understand the difference because there weren’t such places in the Old World, where as Jean mused, even in the highest mountains there were little villages with houses and people. Thad Carhart’s writing about the two worlds is in my opinion the most compelling part of this novel. The scenes of buffalos’ hunt, of endless prairies and even of the arranged deer hunts in Europe were very vivid and as such quite beautiful.

One part of Across the Endless River that I had any real complaint of was that for a historical fiction with a subject of this one, very intriguing but very lonely, lost between two worlds person, it was way too short. It almost seemed to me as if at some point the author just got tired of writing and decided to ‘cut to the chase’. I don’t mind ‘cutting to the chase’ when I read fast-action thrillers, but Across the Endless River is really a book with a potential for a true saga and it would have benefited tremendously from deeper digging into Jean-Baptiste’s affairs and lives shared between the two worlds. It’s almost as if I didn’t get a chance to completely familiarize myself with him or other characters.

However, I still don’t think this should discourage people from reaching for this book. I think it might be a perfect fit for someone who is not fully familiar with the world of historical fiction, is just making a decision to take a plunge into it but doesn’t want to be drowned in a 600+ epic from the get-go. Thad Carhart is definitely an author that will provide you with a taste for more and even me saying that his novel could have been longer only means that yes, I would definitely read more as I enjoyed his writing.

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Special Thanks to Anna S. from FSB Associates for sending me a copy of this book for review.