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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Book review: 'Undaunted Courage' by Stephen E. Ambrose

For two decades (literally) I've been meaning to read Undaunted Courage, ever since I found out that my Boss Man at the time was reading it, and I never thought he read anything except cereal boxes, so it had to be good.

At the East Falls Church Metro station not long ago, a woman walked up when she saw me engaged in the book, and talked about it nonstop while we waited for the train, and she continued chatting about it on the train. 

I know a book is good when I think about the characters during the day (!) and wonder what they are doing which first happened to me with Lonesome Dove, one of the last great contemporary fictions I have read.  But, back to the subject. Undaunted is a very good book.  And it's not fiction.I wondered what they were doing for food.  (Here, would you like some horse with that bitterroot?)

Although it starts out dry (someone said "like a history book") it doesn't take long before it inserts its hypnosis in your mind, and off you go riding on the trail (1804-1806), on the wagons, the horses, and the tree boats on the waterways with Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) whose assignment from President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was to find a northwest route to the Pacific Ocean which they did not, but they got to the Pacific.

Never mind.

Reading correspondence always enlivens any story, and here, the characters come alive in the only way they can.  President Jefferson's hopes, dreams, doubts, and orders to find a route are laid out.  He becomes more personable, too.

Excellent maps are included, and I kept wishing there were more of them to supply additional details.

Escaping and befriending various tribes of Indians are only part of the story.  The explorers' mastery of icy mountains and river crossings are astonishing, and Lewis describes vividly in his journals their discoveries of new plants, birds, and animals.  The men's jarring with bears, snakes, and their communication with Indians when no one spoke the others' languages were just a few of the feats which load the book and leave you incredulous so much was accomplished amidst the harsh conditions.
A surprising element with scattered bits of information found throughout the tale is description of a married couple who accompanied them, the woman, an Indian, Sacagawea, who joined the troop to help with language interpretation.  On the way she gave birth to their first child, and later, after the journey ended and she died,  Clark adopted both her children.  

I don't believe anyone has been able to pinpoint the exact reasons, after the journey ended, that Lewis did not respond to Jefferson's letters and pleas for information about the publication of Lewis's journals, but I shall join others and offer my guess.
Perhaps he was overwhelmed and did not know how to begin the massive project, assembling and ordering his papers, and take them through the publication process, unable to report to Jefferson that he had not begun. Sometimes, beginning is the hardest part. 

After the journey ended, President Jefferson appointed Lewis to the governorship of the Louisiana Territory. On a trip from there to Washington, D.C., Lewis supposedly killed himself on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, according to "experts." (Here is the place. )   (When presented the evidence, Jefferson joined the believers, but there are many doubters.)

In 1996 (the year Undaunted came out) a Tennessee coroner's jury recommended (in concert with 200 members of Lewis's family) that his body be exhumed for forensic analysis which only took the U.S. Department of the Interior 12 years, until 2008 to sanction.  In 2010 the Obama administration rescinded the decision. Why?  (New book.) 

Maybe an erstwhile member of the Meriwether Lewis Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation can conduct her own exploration and use FOIA to request documents,  learn the reason(s), and write all about it

In later years Undaunted's author, Stephen Ambrose (1936-2002) was accused of sloppy research and plagiarism in many of his books. 

I kept wishing I had read it before I took a cross-country trip last year with my son, since we traveled on and near many of places Lewis and Clark visitedWe might still be on the road. 

A companion pictorial history is also available, with many of the marvelous scenes and paintings included in the original volume, all to be found at my favorite public library, the Fairfax County Public Library, the best. 

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