It’s often been said of Ginger Rogers that she did everything that Fred Astaire did only backwards and wearing high heels. Another female icon, Sacagawea, is equally admired for doing everything that Lewis & Clark did, only carrying a newborn infant with her every step of the way. Legions of writers and fans have exaggerated Sacagawea’s role in the Corps of Discovery almost beyond recognition, but one constant remains: mother and child, trekking through the wilderness.
Thad Carhart’s new literary novel, Across the Endless River, starts where most people’s knowledge of Sacagawea and her son Baptiste leaves off. Given how he spent the first two years of his life, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, nicknamed Pomp by Captain William Clark, is a young boy forever along for the ride. From the start, Baptiste is an outsider caught up in a swirl of cultures with widely disparate values and expectations. Part of the year he spends at the Mandan villages in North Dakota, living a traditional lifestyle with his mother and his father, a rough old fur trapper. There Baptiste learns to know and understand the river and the natural world.
The other half of the year, Baptiste lives in St. Louis as the ward of Captain Clark. Clark is a loving guardian, and he sees that Baptiste is educated in the classics, schooled as a Catholic (the religion of his father), and allowed to develop his talents as a musician. In a moving scene, Clark is the one person who understands and shares eight-year-old Baptiste’s grief when they learn that Sacagawea has died at a frontier fort. As he grows up, Baptiste becomes skilled at passing between the two worlds. He also begins to realize that he will never be fully accepted in either.
At age 18, Baptiste’s life takes a surprising turn after he becomes a river guide for a German nobleman and naturalist, Duke Paul of Wurttemberg. Paul invites Baptiste to return to Europe with him to tour the continent and help him organize and describe the many specimens of animals and Indian artifacts he has collected on the trip. What young man would refuse? Within months, Baptiste is off to Europe and the adventure of his life.
The main storyline of Across the Endless River follows fish-out-of-water Baptiste on his peregrinations through Europe. At first, I was concerned that we had started down the well-trodden path of “wise Native American meets clueless Europeans.” But the book is much more thoughtful than that. Baptiste is astute enough to notice that Duke Paul and his fellow nobles could learn a lot from his Mandan buddies back home, but he also begins to discover that he too has a lot to learn about life.
Baptiste has been friendly with a few tavern wenches, but now he becomes involved with two women who couldn’t be more different. He begins a passionate secret affair with Therese, a much older noblewoman who seems to live life on her own terms. Then there is Maura, an Irish-French girl about his own age who is caught between family duty and her own desire to be a doctor–an impossibility for a woman in Europe. Baptiste begins to realize that he is not the only one who faces decisions, compromises, and constraints on his life.
Though Across the Endless River is light on plot, the pages turn easily. Carhart has a down-to-earth writing style and a wonderful eye for the telling and intriguing details for Paris, Wuttermberg, and the fabulous royal palaces and salons in which the young frontiersman spends his days. Servants glide through secret passages, enabling the lavish lifestyle but also furthering their own agendas, while royals connive and rail against their destinies. Duke Paul, in particular, dreams of becoming a great naturalist but struggles with frustration, his own disorganized nature, and his unwillingess to give up his royal perks.
Baptiste Charbonneau stayed in Europe until he was 25, then returned to America to spend the rest of his life as a frontier trapper, guide, and mountain man. From the outside looking in, his sojourn among these European royals appears to be an exotic adventure. But Carhart hits on a universal theme that makes this historical novel more than a curiosity: the journey of a young person to understand himself; to see his fellow human beings as they really are, with all their foibles and dreams; and to make his own decisions. By the end of Across the Endless River, the son of Sacagawea is no longer just along for the ride.