Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book review: Thad Carhart, Across the Endless River

Born in 1805 along Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau is a man caught between two worlds. His travels begin in infancy, when Sacagawea straps him to her back on a cradleboard while heading westward with the famed expedition to the Pacific. Baptiste spends his childhood partly with her and his French fur-trapper father in the villages of the Mandan, and partly at William Clark's home in St. Louis. In 1824, when he is eighteen, he serves as a guide for Duke Paul of Württemberg on his first visit to the American frontier. The two strike up a friendship, prompting Paul to invite Baptiste to return with him to Europe and assist him in organizing his collection of Indian artifacts.

Little is known about Baptiste's five-year sojourn overseas, leaving Carhart plenty of room for imaginative exploration. After crossing an ocean far more vast than the prairie grasslands, Baptiste accompanies the "gypsy duke" on his travels from Le Havre to Stuttgart, Venice, Stockholm, and back, with many stops in between. He gets drawn into the unfamiliar world of European royalty and nobility, where one's outer appearance is assumed to reflect one's status, and his facility with languages and innate curiosity serve him well. Although he remains an outsider, he meets others who, like him, regularly move between two cultures. He shares romantic liaisons with two of them -- Princess Theresa, Paul's independent older cousin, and Maura, a sophisticated French-Irish wine merchant's daughter -- although social conventions prevent any formal attachments. As he comes of age, he experiences all the pleasures of aristocratic life but comes to understand its responsibilities and limitations.

It's ironic to have a protagonist articulate the problems with a novel's structure, yet Baptiste nails them exactly. While en route from Paris to Stuttgart, he expresses his discomfort with being a passive observer, "as if all that was expected of him was to go from one place to another and take in what he found." The early chapters brim with vibrant depictions of his adventures along the Missouri, a half-wild land full of natural beauty and diverse civilizations. Once in Europe, however, the novel loses steam. From the elaborately sculpted gardens at the Palace of Ludwigsburg to the ducal forest around Carlsruhe, Baptiste continually remarks on his elegant surroundings and marvels at the differences between them and his former life. He makes observations; he writes letters home about them; he learns a lot about European history, society, and customs and shares his knowledge about the Mandan. He and others discuss social issues of contemporary concern, yet the dialogue is frequently stilted -- resulting in scenes as inanimate as the specimens in Duke Paul's oversized, ill-conceived collection.

In some instances, the beautifully described settings take on a life of their own. While strolling with Baptiste along the streets of Paris, with the striped awnings of its cafés and the delicate archways of its stone bridges, it's possible to forget, temporarily, that this is supposed to be a novel. Once the characters' conversations begin intruding on the pages, the magic quickly dissipates. While not without its moments, this account of Baptiste's European voyage of discovery works better as travelogue than fiction.


Across the Endless River was published in hardcover this September by Doubleday at $26.95, hb, 308pp, 978-0-385-52977-8.


  1. An excellent review! I just received a copy of this book to review and while I'm not far into it yet, I will definitely keep your comments in mind.

  2. Hi Aarti, thanks for your comments on the review! I'd be interested to hear what you thought of the book after you're done -- feel free to post a link to your own review in the comments.

  3. Anonymous9:34 AM

    Yes, Across the Endless River, with its entrancing title, appears to be a fine historical novel about Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Book lovers can also appreciate his actual biography entitled Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, Man of Two Worlds. It reveals a life that surpasses fiction.

  4. Sarah, thanks for the review. What a disappointment the novel shifted directions once Charbonneau went to Europe. Maybe this would have worked better as non-fiction.

  5. I tend to agree, though readers who like contemplative novels may appreciate the author's style here. He has written a highly regarded, bestselling account about life in Paris (which I haven't read) and this reads as if he isn't fully comfortable with fiction yet. I enjoy literary historical novels, but I prefer the characters to do a little more than observe and converse.