A daft Vermonter and his loyal nephew precede Lewis and Clark—in an erudite and absorbing tweak of the Great Exploration.
Skirting the dangerous whirlpools of whimsy and preciousness, novelist (The Fall of the Year, 1999) and memoirist (North Country, 1997) Mosher, himself a Vermonter, spins a light-as-air western concoction. Narrator Ticonderoga (Ti) Kinneson, only son of a small-town newspaper editor, has grown up under the tutelage of his father’s energetically eccentric brother Private True Teague Kinneson. Uncle True—whose claim to have accompanied Ethan Allen at his victory would have made him a soldier at age seven—drives his younger brother to distraction, but he is his nephew’s hero and friend. True blames his dottiness on a fall taken at the celebration of the Vermont victory at Ticonderoga, a whack to the skull requiring the constant protection of a copper basin, itself protected by a knit, belled cap. Oh, and he wears a codpiece. It would be a lazy student, then, who did not catch the references to Cervantes as Uncle True escapes New England to compete in a race to the Pacific against President Jefferson’s official party, references to whom Mosher makes happily and unpretentiously (L. Frank Baum pops up too). The utterly loyal Ti, mounted on a fine stallion, a gift, like True’s white mule, from President Jefferson, dutifully follows the possibly mad man to Monticello and the world beyond, a world that includes Daniel Boone’s nymphomaniacal daughter, an endless succession of interesting Indian tribes, big skies, and near-daily encounters with death and disaster, with escapes almost always due to True’s boundless ingenuity, which was unaffected by the disastrous blow to the head all those years ago. In the midst of the madness and maelstroms, Ti learns to paint well enough to invent a genre that incorporates Indian artistic conventions. The Kinnesons are in constant contact with but always ahead of Lewis and Clark, and they do, indeed, make it to the Pacific.
Readers who traveled the continent with Lewis and Clark in Brian Hall’s masterly I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company will see the same landmarks and run into the same people, but they’ll have a much, much easier trip—and more fun.