Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Across the Endless River

Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, born in 1805 during the Lewis and Clark expedition, is one of the most unique figures in American history. The son of a French fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau, and Sacagawea, the Indian woman who played such a prominent role in the expedition, Baptiste was carried on his mother’s back all the way to the Pacific Ocean. He was born with a foot in two different worlds and, before he was twenty years old, the young man would find himself visiting Europe’s major cities as the five-year guest of amateur natural historian, Duke Paul of Wurttemberg.

In Across the Endless River, Thad Carhart recounts how the two men met and imagines what Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau might have experienced during his half-decade living among Europe’s minor royalty. As Carhart points out in his “Author’s Note,” while no record of Baptiste’s European years exists today, some details of Duke Paul’s history during those same years are known. Carhart largely uses what we know about Duke Paul to frame Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau’s European adventure. Baptiste would have been, for instance, instrumental in assembling and cataloging the Duke’s huge North American natural history collection and would have witnessed the Duke’s arranged marriage (a marriage very much to the Duke’s economic advantage) and his equally arranged separation after the birth of his son.

Across the Endless River clearly contrasts the differing lifestyles Baptiste experienced before he turned twenty. In America, as a boy, he moved between his Mandan village and Captain Clark’s St. Louis home, and learned the skills that would allow him to make his living as a frontier guide for Europeans looking for adventure and fortune. He was able to converse in several Indian languages and is known to have also spoken English, French, German and Spanish, a skill that allowed him to move relatively easily within whatever world he found himself.

One can only imagine, of course, what Baptiste thought of the different cultures he experienced and this is the real theme of Across the Endless River. What would a man raised in the wilds of a young country think of the decadent lifestyle of European royalty? What would he think of the servant class and its relationship to the wealthy? Would he relate to the servants or would he learn to reflect the attitudes of the Duke and the Duke’s royal family? Would he have sexual adventures in Europe and who might those couplings involve – prostitutes, servants, members of the royal family? Would he be treated as a mere curiosity in Europe or as an equal?

The possibilities are endless for a man caught between two, so different worlds, and Thad Carhart makes the most of them. The book does suffer a bit because of the contrast between its fast paced early sections and the much slower pace at which the book’s European sections move. Much of Baptiste’s time in Europe is spent idly traveling from one royal home to another where little more than another banquet or ball ever seems to occur. This may perfectly reflect the lifestyle of Europe’s “rich and famous” of the day but even Baptiste grew bored with it and it gives the book an uneven feel. In the end, though, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau is a fascinating character and it is great fun to speculate along with the author about what he was really up to from 1824 to 1829.

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Doubleday)


  1. Fine review.
    You would appreciate Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, Man of Two Worlds, which is his historical biography.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Anonymous. I'll be sure to take a look at the biography you recommend. Thanks.