Monday, November 05, 2007

The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis

Bill Lewis is a high school history teacher with such a bad case of writer’s block that it is taking over his life. Lewis is working on a biography of famed explorer Meriwether Lewis and knows that he needs to have his book in print before the impending 200th anniversary of Meriwether’s death in order to maximize the impact of the book. But Bill has become so obsessed by the mystery of Meriwether’s death just three years after he and William Clark returned so triumphantly to civilization that he finds it impossible to finish the book unless he can fully explain Meriwether’s apparent suicide.

Bill Lewis and Meriwether Lewis have much in common as it turns out. Like Meriwether, Bill suffers from periodic, but chronic, depression to such a degree that thoughts of death and suicide are never far away. Bill dislikes men and finds it as difficult to build a friendly relationship with another man as Meriwether did two hundred years before him. Meriwether yearned constantly for female companionship and wanted nothing more than to marry. Bill, although married, is in such an unstable relationship with his wife and son that he finds himself drawn to unlikely candidates with whom he might be able to begin a new life.

Michael Pritchett tells the intertwining story of these two men by alternating chapters in the voice of each man. He relies heavily on the actual journals of Lewis and Clark to tell the story of their famous expedition, quoting directly from the journals at times and using the same flowery language of that time to detail their adventures and the battle that Lewis waged with depression even as he pushed westward. As Bill Lewis gets closer and closer to the chapter of his book that will describe Meriwether’s apparent death at his own hand, he seems to be sinking into the same state of melancholy that claimed Meriwether’s life. For Bill, it becomes a race to the finish but it is a question of whose life will end first, his or Meriwether’s.

Pritchett has written an interesting book but at times I found that the language and style of the early nineteenth century made for slow and difficult reading in the Meriwether Lewis chapters. The Bill Lewis chapters were a welcome break from that style but, as Bill began to identify more and more closely with Meriwether, even those chapters began to use Meriwether’s antique style. Michael Pritchett’s The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis puts a human face on Meriwether Lewis and, although it does not claim to solve the mystery surrounding his death, it is a book that will very likely encourage many of its readers to seek out the original Lewis and Clark journals.

Rated at: 3.5

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