If you aren’t familiar with Wendy’s Musings of a Bookish Kitty site, don’t be put off by the whimsical name. Her book reviews have made her one of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking, and sincerely useful book reviewers on the web. She tells it like it is, so we were honored and thrilled by this review:
Forcing his head up into the deluge, Clark peeled back an eyelid and squinted. The heavens had paled to a deathly green, with clouds rolling and tumbling, black as midnight with fire boiling inside. A great sheet of white lightening ripped the sky so violently that Clark felt it vibrate through his hair to his heart and down into his bare feet, warm against the mud. [pg 11]
The Fairest Portion of the Globe by Frances Hunter
Blind Rabbit Press, February 2010
Fiction (Historical); 421 pgs
A recent death in the family motivated me to pull out the family tree my husband and I began working on years ago. It had been a year or two since I last looked it over or given it a much needed update. I found myself reading through the names, going back through our families’ histories. One branch of my family, I can trace back to Virginia (and Germany before that) during the late 1700’s, which is the time period of Frances Hunter’s novel, The Fairest Portion of the Globe. As I read the novel, I could not help but imagine what the life of my ancestors must have been like in early America.
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in history. When I was in school, I had a particular fondness for U.S. history. To this day, I still enjoy visiting historical landmarks whenever I travel. In recent years, my interest in history has taken a more broad form. I am drawn to the history and cultures of other countries, sometimes more so than my own. And yet, my interest in U.S. history has narrowed some. I find myself interested more in 20th century history. It shows in my fiction reading. I am not sure why that is exactly. Perhaps something to explore at greater length another time . . .
It’s been years since I last read a book set in early American history. When the authors approached me to review The Fairest Portion of the Globe, I felt a spark of excitement that took me back to those days when I couldn’t get enough of early U.S. history.
Frances Hunter is a writing team of two sisters, Liz and Mary Clare. The Fairest Portion of the Globe is their second novel, sort of a prequel to their first book, To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis and Clark, but readers do not have to read one to enjoy the other.
The authors take great pains to create as accurate a history as possible and yet also make the history come to life for the reader. It is a novel, after all. There was nothing textbook about it. It was an engaging and suspenseful book to read. I originally had written my own summary of the novel to include with my review, but it ended up being a bit too long. I think the authors sum it up best on their website:
La Louisiane–a land of riches beyond imagining. Whoever controls the vast domain along the Mississippi River will decide the fate of the North American continent. When young French diplomat Citizen Genet arrives in America, he’s determined to wrest Louisiana away from Spain and win it back for France—even if it means global war.
Caught up this astonishing scheme are George Rogers Clark, the washed-up hero of the Revolution and unlikely commander of Genet’s renegade force; his beautiful sister Fanny, who risks her own sanity to save her brother’s soul; General “Mad Anthony” Wayne, who never imagined he’d find the country’s deadliest enemy inside his own army; and two young soldiers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who dream of claiming the Western territory in the name of the United States—only to become the pawns of those who seek to destroy it.
From the frontier forts of Ohio to the elegant halls of Philadelphia, the virgin forests of Kentucky to the mansions of Natchez, Frances Hunter has written a page-turning tale of ambition, intrigue, and the birth of a legendary American friendship—in a time when America was fighting to survive.
There are several story threads that run through the novel, and quite a few characters to follow, but I was never lost or confused as to what was going on. In fact, I was quite intrigued by each of the characters’ stories. My favorite, however, involved George and William’s sister Fanny. Fanny is married to Doctor Jim O’Fallon, George’s good friend and right hand man. He is the one who is able to keep George sober and has a gift for dealing with the political aspects of putting together an army. Jim is well liked and respected by the Clark family. Knowing how much her brother relies on Jim, Fanny is afraid to tell anyone about the other side of her husband, his darker, more violent side. I ached for Fanny. She was such a good-hearted young woman and yet she was trapped, feeling helpless and alone. Jim is one of those characters I was truly hoping would get what he deserved in the end the more I read about him.
Andre Michaux, a botanist from France whose wife died in childbirth, was another character who stole my heart. He is completely out of his element, tasked by Citizen Genet, the French diplomat, with helping General George Rogers Clark put together an army to take against Spain. He merely wants to explore and study the flora and fauna of the New World, going further west.
For me, one of the most intriguing characters in the novel is General James Wilkinson, a proud man who is trusted and respected by the Clark brothers. He has his secrets, however, and like Lewis, I never quite trusted him, unsure of exactly what he was up to.
As a mystery reader who often figures out the whodunit pretty quickly, there were quite a few surprising twists in this novel. I never knew what would happen next. Well, except for the ultimate outcome. The novel is based on actual historical events after all. Even so, I learned quite a bit I hadn’t known before and even spent some time doing my own research.
The novel did get off to a slow start. I am not sure that could be helped, given the need to set the story up. Once William Clark was introduced, the story picked up, and it really took off for me when Meriwether Lewis appeared on the scene. I really liked both Clark and Lewis, and enjoyed watching the friendship bloom between them. Some of my favorite types of stories are origin stories, and The Fairest Portion of the Globe related the origin of the two great explorers’ friendship and eventual partnership.
Lewis and Clark are legends in American history. They’ve always seemed a bit larger than life as a result. The authors offer a more personal glimpse into their lives, as well as into the Clark family, reminding me that they were real people with real fears and failings.
Meriwether Lewis is a bit of a wild card, an ensign in the army and newly assigned to William Clark. In his first introduction to his commanding officer, Lewis nearly shoots Clark off his horse (one of my favorite scenes). I confess that I developed a little crush on Lewis. He is sharp and not much gets by him. He seems like the kind of person who would make a good friend, trustworthy and honorable even if a little hotheaded. William Clark, on the other hand, is more levelheaded, although no slouch either. He is a strong leader and really cares about the men under him. He is also very loyal to his family.
I felt so bad for George Rogers Clark, William Clark’s brother. He’d done much for his country, only to be left high and dry in the end. He put so much of himself into his new mission, including sobering up. Like his brother and the rest of his family, I wanted him to have some of that old glory. Yet I could also see how this new situation could end up like it did before. What if the French didn’t follow through with money and back up? It all seemed a little too shaky from my perspective, especially given what I knew about Citizen Genet from the beginning chapter.
It was interesting seeing America through the eyes of the characters, discovering what life must have been like in 1794, the year the novel is set. The beauty of the land, all that open space, the hardships the people endured, and the life a soldier led (The very thought of picking maggots out of my food turns my stomach).
There was one passage in particular that had me running to my computer to do a little research. Lewis, at one point in the novel, is reading a book and, from the description, I knew it had to be a real book. While we can’t really know if Lewis ever read that particular book, just from the descriptions of his character–his curiosity and his love for learning–I imagine that he very likely would have enjoyed reading. And when books are scarce and there’s a lot of downtime, what’s a soldier more likely to read than a popular novel? I finally broke down and e-mailed the authors asking for the title of the book since my own rudimentary search turned up nothing. That little excursion has piqued my interest in that particular book now as well.
I confess that I nearly turned down the opportunity to read The Fairest Portion of the Globe. I was a little intimidated by the fact that the novel was about such prominent historical figures–silly I know. And I also worried that reading the novel would feel too much like homework. Yet, there was that spark I talked about earlier, of revisiting a time in history that I once loved and had such a curiosity about. I took a chance and am so glad I did.
Frances Hunter’s The Fairest Portion of the Globe was not only informative, it was also entertaining. I got misty-eyed, I chuckled, and I even held my breath (oh my gosh, that ending!)–and that’s even knowing a bit about how history would play out.
Rating: (Very Good)