Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Sunday, March 1, 2015

To The Ends Of The Earth, by Frances Hunter (2006)

To The Ends Of The Earth: The Last Journey Of Lewis & Clark is the well-conceived and written first historical novel of Frances Hunter, which turns out to be a pen name belonging to a pair of sisters named Mary and Liz Clare. They have since published one other historical, which I have yet to read - but plan to.

In the early-U.S. history sub-genre, it's hard to find novels so free of hagiography except for the lone voice in the wilderness of Gore Vidal, and among the post-moderns like Barth and Pinchon. Much as I enjoyed Mason & Dixon, however, the literary gimmickry (just my opinion) gets in the way of my desire to become immersed in a good story.

To The Ends Of The Earth spins a marvelous tale of intrigue, mystery, suspense - and yes, history - including the kind of intelligent historical speculation I enjoy so much in Iain Pears novels like Stone's Fall. And such a motley crew of early Americans! I feel much better about the 21st century after getting to know the collection of cutthroats, thieves, liars, bigots, hypocrites, racists and substance abusers inhabiting this novel. Not all that different from Mark Twain, actually.

Everyone knows the names Lewis & Clark from their famous 1803-4 expedition to the Pacific Coast, but few are familiar with "the last journey" of 1809. There's a good reason for that. After the triumphant return in 1804, Lewis and Clark were "rewarded" with diplomatic appointments in the new Louisiana Territory. Neither man was suited to such a life, and Governor Lewis soon found himself embroiled in political and financial difficulties.

The last straw was when the War Department in Washington D.C. refused to pay some drafts he had issued in the name of the territorial government. Lewis resolved to travel in person, mostly overland, from St. Louis to the Capitol to straighten things out. He never got there - Lewis died in mysterious circumstances on the trail, in what is now Tennessee. Worried about his friend, William Clark had set out after him but caught up too late, either to prevent or observe the death of his friend.

Frances Hunter found many aspects of this story to be very odd, and set out to construct a plausible fictional narrative that could explain all. The result is highly entertaining, full of skullduggery and moral dissolution while remaining faithful to history. In a stroke of genius, the authors pull in one of the most remarkably scandalous figures in all of U.S. history - General James Wilkinson - as chief villain.  

Wilkinson holds the dubious distinction of appearing in several historical novels, filling the standard role of "the bad guy who always gets away with it by shifting blame onto the innocent hero". Perhaps the earliest of those is Rabble in Arms, by Kenneth Roberts (1933). Someone should make "Jamie" the hero of his own novel, bringing some balance to his fictional reputation, as Gore Vidal did with Aaron Burr (by blaming Wilkinson!)

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. As mentioned above, I knew very little about the later careers of Lewis & Clark. Always a rich trove of character study - what famous people do with the rest of their lives after the thing that made them famous.
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. The events that occur within the novel's time/space frame are fairly restricted, but a skillful use of flashbacks brings a much wider historical scope to the novel.
Score = 5
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes and maybe? As is necessary in this style of novel, there's a fair amount of speculation regarding the thinking behind the characters' actions, but Hunter freely acknowledges that in an excellent concluding "Author's Note". In addition, Hunter adds a number of fascinating but obscure facts gleaned from primary sources not generally well known. Since the climactic action - the death of Lewis - is itself shrouded in mystery, the "real" history in this tale is somewhat slippery. Mainly for that reason, I'm awarding less than the highest score, but that should not be taken as criticism.
Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
It's hard to know. Despite the detailed journals Lewis & Clark kept during their eponymous expedition, they were "men of few words" about themselves. Their contemporaries were mostly of the same ilk, describing events in as few words as possible and giving few clues to their emotional states. Suffice it to say, then, that Hunter stays faithful to the things we do know about the historical characters (who are also most of the main characters). Again, a "4" here is not a criticism.
Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and character motivations plausible?
Yes. The most fun thing about this novel was the clever plausibility of its plot. This is my favorite style of historical novel - one that includes an entirely plausible but historically unknown fictional plot that doesn't bend any known historical facts along the way.
Score = 5

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