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Before Lewis and Clark

Trivia, particulars, no big picture

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On the cover of Shirley Christian's recent book, Before Lewis and Clark: The Story of the Chouteaus, the French Dynasty that Ruled America's Frontier, is a detail from Karl Bodmer's idyllic painting, Herd of Bisons on the Upper Missouri. The painting shows a frontier plain in deep shadow, dotted with buffalo, presided over by a hazy yellow sunset. Executed in a rough style, the painting is nevertheless evocative, rousing a desire to know more about 19th century life along the Missouri River. The jacket does its job, and readers with even a passing interest in the American Frontier will want to crack the book.

Why, you ask, are we talking about the cover of the book? Because anticipating the history contained in Before Lewis and Clark is a pleasure; reading it is not.

Before Lewis and Clark is a well-meaning, painstakingly researched book hobbled by flat prose and a writer's unfocused gaze. It's as if Christian could not decide which events, facts and descriptions would best serve her purpose; moreover, it's hard to discover exactly what Christian's purpose is (the closest we come is a short epilogue). The content of Before Lewis and Clark doesn't seem to have undergone a prioritizing or evaluative process; facts are simply poured onto the page.

Circa fourth grade, most everyone learned the story of the Lewis and Clark exploration of the Louisiana Territory. The appeal of Before Lewis and Clark is that the focus is not on Lewis and Clark's journey but rather on the lesser-told story of the Chouteau family, the French founders of St. Louis who facilitated not only Lewis and Clark's journey, but also nothing less than American holdings in the new territory. In Shirley Christian's words, "Starting with the Jefferson Administration and Lewis and Clark, the United States government ... piggybacked on the skills and knowledge of the Chouteaus and other fur traders in the Louisiana Purchase region."

Pierre Lacl de Liguest was the Frenchman who founded the city of St. Louis and the ironic patriarch of the Chouteau clan. (With his lifelong companion, Madame Chouteau--the abandoned wife of another man--Lacl de Liguest fathered four of Madame Chouteau's five children, though due to the strict code of French Catholic society, the children were "officially" Ren Augustin Chouteau's.) Surviving the region's passing from French to Spanish to United States occupation, three generations of Chouteaus unveiled in Before Lewis and Clark display a soap opera-like family evolution from humble fur trappers into a social, economic and political dynasty. Among the notables are not only Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, but presidents from Jefferson to Lincoln and iconic figures like Sam Houston, Daniel Boone, the Marquis de Lafayette and Washington Irving.

As some of the only people at the time attempting to understand and work cooperatively with Native Americans--rather than dismissing or annihilating them--the Chouteaus were unique. Yet in their tolerance and even endorsement of the institution of slavery, the Chouteaus showed themselves to be ideologically inconsistent. Never boring, they proved themselves historically noteworthy in being indispensable to a government baffled by Native Americans and their culture.

The book is unfortunately tiresome. The first bad sign is its title-- long and cloyingly specific. There are evocative, engaging histories (like Richard Pipe's A Concise History of the Russian Revolution), and then there are dry, fact-listing narratives such as Before Lewis and Clark. It's a pity, because Christian is working with a rich and interesting time and place.

As a reader, it is difficult to put a finger on why Christian's writing is so strangely jarring. To repeat, the material itself is interesting but the delivery of the facts and events fails to satisfy. The material is discharged in a seemingly random order. It is not uncommon for the author to abandon one Chouteau thread for the thread of another Chouteau, jumping years in the process, several times within one chapter. And if that isn't perplexing enough, Christian's prose also bogs down in side details.

To be fair, some readers--perhaps many readers--revel in the minute particulars that Christian seems to prize, even as others find the same off-putting. To some, myriad lists about beaver skins, items purchased on spending sprees, amounts paid, owed, promised, advanced and defaulted, as well as endless incidental details, are interesting.

Overall, Before Lewis and Clark is not a wasted read. It contains a lot of engaging history if you can make it through over 400 pages of long, dry text. However, the book's editor should be flogged.

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