One of the great American epics of exploration and discovery, the Lewis and Clark expedition has been recounted many times by historians, biographers, and novelists, most recently in Stephen E. Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage (1996). The story receives a sensitive and poetic treatment in I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company. In his novel, Brian Hall gives readers the backgrounds of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacajawea before the expedition begins, and he carries their stories well beyond the journey’s end.
When appointed to command the expedition, the veteran soldier Lewis was serving as Thomas Jefferson’s secretary and was the person to whom Jefferson confided his thoughts and hopes. Having purchased the vast Louisiana territory from France, Jefferson was eager to know what was out there; he sent Lewis and his chosen second-in command, Clark, to find and map a river route to the Pacific Ocean. The book is largely a character study of the two explorers, whose mission was also to study the American Indian tribes and learn as much as possible about their relations with one another, their languages, traditions, food, domestic life, agriculture, hunting, fishing, war, diseases and remedies, laws and customs. At the same time, Lewis and Clark were to study the geology of the territory, the flora and fauna, the climate—in short to be geographers, anthropologists, geologists, botanists, zoologists, and ornithologists, to bring back specimens and keep journals.
Besides carrying out this formidable assignment, the explorers had to work their boats upstream against the current, headwinds, treacherous snags and sandbars, fallen trees, and torrents of mud of the Missouri River, survive the bitter cold of winter (sometimes near starvation), and contend with the rivalry of tribes hostile to one another. Lewis and Clark would find a way through the Rocky Mountains, locate and descend the Columbia River, endure a miserably wet winter at Fort Clatsop on the Pacific, and then return, arriving at St. Louis on September 23, 1806, having spent two years and four months on a journey of nearly eight thousand miles through an uncharted wilderness.
Hall vividly evokes the adventure, but he does not document every detail, preferring to focus on significant moments and dramatic highlights. He is particularly interested in the psychological reactions of the main characters and therefore gives the narrative from a variety of points of view. The book’s dust jacket is a bit misleading in saying that he wrote “in four competing voices.” There are actually five, and only one is in the first person—that of Charbonneau, who speaks in a broken French syntax. The others’ viewpoints are given in the third-person voice, but Hall attempts to capture a plausible style and diction to convey the quality of each.
The main character is Lewis, a charismatic but complicated man who was troubled with self-doubts, had repeated writer’s block while working on his journal, and was tormented by profound and prolonged bouts of depression as well as experiencing moments of great joy even during the hardships of the journey. He became, in fact, depressed because the hardest parts of the journey came to an end. Hall suggests that Lewis suffered from what is now called bipolar disorder. Despite his close friendship with Clark, Lewis was a lonely man.
Clark, the mapmaker for the expedition, was more forthright and less introspective, but he alternated between appreciation and occasional resentful envy of Lewis. One problem between the two was that Lewis had promised Clark a captaincy but was only able to provide him with a lieutenant’s commission. The most complex chapters are those written from the point of view of Sacajawea. In an author’s note, Hall says he does not speak Shoshone but used that language’s grammar and a thesaurus to “suggest the spirit of the language, rather than the letter.” He considered it essential to convey the adventure from the American Indian point of view and in the Sacajawea chapters attempts to give...
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