Sunday, March 30, 2008

Undaunted Courage

Mariellen and I listened to this audiobook on the drive back from Lewis and Clark country, Bozeman, Montana. The author, Stephen Ambrose, tells Meriweather Lewis's life story, focusing of course on his monumental exploration of what became the western U.S. The ending comes as a surprise, and I hate to ruin endings, so I'll leave it at that. It was interesting to hear the full picture of what became of this man along with the detailed description of what exactly happened on the Lewis and Clark expedition. The narrative relies primarily on Lewis and Clark's journals to describe what happens on the exploration. This fact is a problem, as my history professors would say, because an over-reliance on one source tends to make a history one-sided. Still, it may be a fault which is inescapable due to the nature of the exploration. It was the first American exploration of the Louisiana territory, going by water in a search for the Pacific ocean. The explorers reach the Pacific, but the genius lies in the voyage itself, not the destination. Getting back was almost as difficult as getting there, and there were fewer resources for the return journey. Ambrose is a military historian, and his description of the military nature of the expedition is one of the best features of the book. It puts the exploration in context as part of Jefferson's dream of what Ambrose calls "empire" and as an encounter with unknown and potentially hostile people -- the Native Americans that Lewis and Clark encounter throughout the journey. The tension in the meeting between the explorers and the Sioux is really brought to the forefront, and it is not the last tense meeting between Lewis and Clark's expedition and the Indians, as Ambrose correctly calls them. (Correct for the timeframe in which the exploration took place -- late 18th century America, not the U.S. we know now). Ambrose does not analyze the journey in light of the multicultural issues familiar to academia -- he simply tells the story of the journey and puts it in a context of a life story. He cites President Jefferson's backword-looking praise for Lewis as the end of the story -- praise that brought chills up my spine for their inspirational quality. It's not often that books inspire in the best sense of the word, but this is an inspiring book.
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