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With scant knowledge of where they are headed or how the world will change while they are en route, two bands of intrepid men head for the Pacific Northwest to assert their dominion over the land and, more importantly, the fur trade.
Cultural differences between the partners (who have the most to gain financially), voyageurs (French Canadians who are expert boatmen), trappers and the Native Americans lead to ghastly mistakes with deadly consequences. The arrogance of the European mindset is difficult to overcome and the primary barrier a successful expedition.
Although I have spent much of my life in the Pacific Northwest, this is a story I had never heard. Perhaps that is because their motives were completely financial - no superficial talk about Manifest Destiny or God's will to give a patina of morality. The men were brave and often heroic but they were also stupid, indecisive and foolish. They were so far from home that the only choice was to go on, whatever lay ahead.
Running two stories along parallel paths can sometimes be difficult to follow, but this book does a good job with both the over-land and sea expeditions. At the very beginning of the book, there is a chapter which actually takes place at almost the close of the story. It comes across as a bit of a gimmick to me - and this story does not need any tricks to keep your interest. The rescue ship in that first chapter is actually one of the least engaging parts of the story.
Other than that one, admittedly minor, complaint, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and learned a great deal. The reader was good, no distracting tics to bother me. The pace is appropriate to the material.
9 of 9 people found this review helpful
Each chapter of this superbly crafted book contains multiple *moments in history,* events that intersected with the political strategy and shaped this country's development. It is also a character study of ambition, courage, greed, inexperience and bad decisions, all set on the grand stage of the beautiful and treacherous, still uncharted, American Northwest. On the heels of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (just 2 years prior) one of the country's wealthiest businessmen, John Jacob Astor, schemed to corner the hungry global fur market by establishing a trading post on the west coast of the continent, thereby harvesting the untapped resources of the Pacific Northwest. *[from his NY base, Astor was already trading heavily with a demanding China and Europe. It was an extremely lucrative business for Astor. His company was trading *trinkets and beads* to several Indian tribes for pallets of furs worth thousands of dollars -- at a "2,500% profit."]
Encouraged by Jefferson, who dreamed of claiming the country after Lewis & Clark's report, and expanding America from coast to coast, Astor financed 2 expeditions: by sea, the 94 ft. 290 ton, copper-hulled Merchant ship, the Tonquin, captained by a seasoned but arrogant, US Navy lieutenant, Jonathan Thorn; and a land expedition led by fur-trader businessman, Wilson Hunt Price. Though inexperienced, and it can now be added ignorant, Hunt planned to use information gathered from the Lewis & Clark Expedition to lead his group west to the mouth of the Columbia River. 340 days later, the two groups would meet at their destination...but, both journeys had been ill-fated. 61 men had perished (also an infant child born on the trek) or had suffered physical and psychological traumas, the Tonquin lay at the bottom of the Clayoquot Sound, and eventually, the weary survivors sold out to the Canadian North West Fur Company for pennies on Astor's dollars.
Stark has done an outstanding job researching journals, letters, articles, interviewing descendants of the explorers, and studying the different cultures of the Native American tribes that inhabited the landscape of the American Northwest -- a culture that paid the ultimate price of Manifest Destiny. Stark, wonderfully describing the topography along the journey, leads his own expedition in a sense: the passages detailing Hell's Canyon and the "Mad River" (The Snake River) are both beautiful and intense; the vistas of buffalo covered prairie's out of the Dakota's are majestic, and so on. The voyage of the Tonquin is just as eloquently written. Struggling to navigate through the system of bars and shoals at the mouth of the Columbia River, battling the waves, wind, and currents, Stark gives readers a white-knuckle passage through what is known as the *Graveyard of the Pacific.* Often I was left behind, picturing the scenes, in awe of the fury or the serene beauty -- the land seems so raw from what I have experienced... I've safely rafted down the Snake River, looked out across the Badlands, ridden a tugboat through the bucking swells of the Columbia Bar. To look back through history from our hard-won state of comfort is incredible.
The characters are nothing less than fascinating from the robust and colorful French Voyageurs to the quiet, brave interpreter, Maria Dorian [gave birth during the trek]. It would be overwhelming to highlight every stunning aspect of this book, or encapsulate such a huge and important adventure into paragraphs. The epilogue is the eye of history looking back over the expedition and wrapping it all up nicely for a great conclusion. This is a read I recommend highly to anyone, and an absolute *don't miss* for history fans. I would also recommend reading Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose, if you haven't read about Lewis and Clark.
27 of 30 people found this review helpful