Nonfiction author Carhart (The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, 2001) turns to bio-fiction in a description-heavy historical based on real people and events.
The son of Shoshone pathfinder Sacagawea and a French trapper, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau (1805–66) led a remarkable life spanning many cultures and languages, although he belonged to none. As a baby he traveled with his parents in Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the Pacific coast. In Carhart’s fictional rendering, Clark’s interest in the boy leads to a childhood divided between two worlds: school in St. Louis and a tribal village. Jean-Baptiste’s linguistic abilities are phenomenal, and he makes such an impression on visiting collector Duke Paul of Württemberg that he is invited to Europe. Notably sensitive to issues of class and politics, Jean-Baptiste is soon mixing with Parisian society; he is dazzled by the city and soon falls under the spell of Irishwoman Maura Hennesy. Although gracefully done, the novel reads more like a historical and social gazetteer than fiction. Scientific enquiry, landscapes, politics and manners predominate, often via such cinematic set pieces as a hunt, a ball or a musical soiree with Schubert; extracts from journals and letters round out the data. After five years of travel and an affair with Duke Paul’s cousin, Jean-Baptiste is ready to return to America, with Maura at his side.
Sensitively compares and contrasts the Old World with the New, but could have done with more plotting and characterization.