Anka Muhlstein, known for her biographies of Queen Victoria and James Rothschild (not reviewed), here traces the life of Robert Cavalier de La Salle, early French explorer of the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, and Texas and founder of Louisiana. She paints a pretty gripping picture of 17th-century Canada, with its tension between brawling, murderous Montreal, populated by coureurs de bois (backwoodsmen) and drunken Indians, and sober Quebec, with its farmers and administrators. We see the forests teeming with horseflies and edible ants, Iroquois war bands slaughtering Illinois villages—landscapes (to the French) terrifying, strange, and irresistible. Made owner of the land around a primitive fort called Frontenac on Lake Ontario in 1675, La Salle enriched himself via the beaver trade and mounted grueling voyages across the frozen wastes with a lifelong Indian guide, Nika. La Salle was unique among early European explorers by virtue of his intimacy with the native people, whose language he spoke. Muhlstein tries to convey something of the absurdity and unease that characterized most contacts between Europeans and Indians but is always constrained by the anecdotal nature of her enterprise. She manages simply to show La Salle's own shrewd humanity. But visionary as he was and probably, at times, half-insane, his fantastical courage and endurance could not cope with the complexity of large-scale official operations, and when he was finally commissioned by Louis XIV in 1687 to found a settlement in the territory that was not yet called Louisiana, the expedition ended in devastation and mutiny. Muhlstein's book is simply and graphically written, geared to the general reader who wants to feel the raw barbarity of frontier life rather than wade through the socioeconomic intricacies of colonial history. This makes the narrative accessible and vivid, though a surprising absence of maps makes the geographical meanderings somewhat hard to follow. Perhaps it is erroneously assumed that contemporary readers know their country as well as La Salle did.
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