Elisabeth Savaret is a young Frenchwoman, an orphan from Paris sent to distant Louisiana in 1704 to marry an unknown man and help populate the fledgling settlement. (Though Elisabeth is fictional, Clark based her character on the documented lives of two historical “casket girls” like her.) In contrast to the other 22 would-be brides aboard her ship, she falls deeply in love with her husband, Jean-Claude Babelon, a handsome French-Canadian ensign with greedy ambitions.
In a parallel story, Auguste, a former cabin boy from La Rochelle, is left abandoned with the Ouma Indians. His commandant directs him to form connections with them, learn their language, and report back on their relations with rival tribes and the hated English. Auguste’s growing friendship with Jean-Claude, who arrives to trade with the Oumas, gradually leads to his re-entry into colony life. He and Elisabeth, suspicious of one another at first, get along famously. But when Jean-Claude proves faithless to them both, they’re forced to deal with unpleasant truths about the man they both loved, as well as about themselves.
The beautiful cover art represents the novel’s early stages too well: distant figures moving slowly through a gorgeous but inhospitable landscape. Book-smart Elisabeth, independent and haughty, refuses to associate with the other women settlers. While her nights with Jean-Claude are passionate, there seems little reason for her devotion and little substance to their relationship. Poor Auguste’s plight evokes sympathy, but he’s not a strong enough character to carry the story yet. The characters don’t really know themselves at this point, and the reasons for their actions are sometimes unclear to the reader as well. After the trio’s stories converge, though, the novel really takes off, becoming less a painted tableau and more of an emotional experience.
New France’s early population numbered fewer than 200 European inhabitants, and they found their lives a real struggle. Using rich language filled with clever metaphors, Clark depicts the shifting power games in Louisiana Territory: the desperate, crafty settlers playing the rival Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes against one other to stave off English incursion. She conveys an excellent sense of place, letting readers experience the dreary winters, unceasing rain, and the reckless fecundity of the vegetation in a place where countless children die young. And if the Frenchwomen’s lives are hard, their slaves’ lives are even harder.
In this land of exiles united by circumstance, anything foreign is suspect and barbaric, especially the natives – who are referred to constantly as “savages.” An unfortunately historically accurate sentiment, no doubt, but it’s still tiresome to read the word that many times. More effective is Clark’s depiction of how the land makes savages of all new arrivals, who must immediately adapt to a rougher lifestyle in order to survive. As one would anticipate, the Europeans more than rival the Indians in their brutal treatment of their enemies.
The miserable conditions, so vividly described, make for an enlightening yet discomfiting read. Those who appreciate realistic frontier fiction shouldn’t expect otherwise. However, it provides moments of great beauty, and despite the many hardships, friendships develop in unexpected places. The narrative is full of fascinating details, particularly about women’s and Native American traditions, and the colony’s people grow and learn as the plot builds to a satisfying conclusion. It’s easy to admire the settlers’ resilience while marveling at the images Clark creates with her words: the evening sky streaked with pink like the inside of a shell, the sweet, grassy scent of the first peas of spring. Settling in to the characters and style of Savage Lands can take time, but it rewards those who persevere.
As a sidenote to this review, I'd wanted to read Savage Lands ever since I saw it in the publisher's catalog nine months ago. With its unique setting and beautiful cover (those historical fonts catching my attention yet again), I knew I had to obtain a copy. I've reviewed a number of books on this blog, a mixture of publisher/author contributions and personal copies, but this is the first I requested from the publisher for this purpose. Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for sending me an ARC.
Savage Lands is published by HMH on February 2nd in hardcover ($25.00, 416pp, ISBN 9780151014736). It's also available in the UK (pub date 4 March) from Harvill Secker at £12.99. I have to say that the US cover is far more inviting.