A parallel narrative of French explorer René-Robert Cavelier La Salle’s 1680s trek to the mouth of the Mississippi River and an intrepid 1976 journey by a group of Midwestern youth.
Swept up in the bicentennial fever, Illinois French teacher Reid Lewis envisioned a dynamic re-enactment project that would focus not on the Revolutionary events in the Northeast but on the role of the 17th-century French explorer in displaying the early American spirit of adventure and determination. In her nicely woven, bifurcated narrative, Chicago-based author Boissoneault, an editor at the Weather Channel, pursues the complicated personalities and logistics that comprised this extraordinarily arduous expedition of 3,300 miles in handmade canoes across two countries, three lakes, and five major rivers. The journey began in Montreal on Aug. 11, 1976, and concluded with a ceremony at the Gulf of Mexico on April 9, 1977. Well ahead of launch, Lewis and a team of teachers and helpers selected their crew of hardy male teenagers—as part of the need for authenticity, the team had to mirror the initial all-male crew, with each participant assuming the name and persona of an actual original—and a supporting liaison staff of girlfriends and wives to help them with food and lodging along the way. They also had to raise the huge anticipated cost of $595,000 to fund the project, requiring six specially fabricated canoes, moccasins, beaver skins, and other authentic clothing and equipment, salaries for the teachers, and media attention. From her research into individual stories by the participants, Boissoneault offers a fresh sense of the challenges to the second expedition—e.g., avoiding anachronisms (mostly for the press), surviving winter weather, and navigating aggressive personalities. The fluid narrative moves with authority and a sense, like La Salle’s original fraught expedition, that anything could disrupt the flow.
An engaging travelogue that provides a good example of how one person tirelessly pursued his dream to fruition.