Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose
4 out of 5 stars
Read in July 2013
thick books do not scare me. If you've delved into my blog here at
all, you'll quickly learn that I read constantly and I read epic fantasy
for fun. The longer, the better. The more characters and plot lines,
even better. With one exception, or wait, two exceptions. I tried but
didn't like G.R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series and Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. Not my cup of tea.
So when July rolled around and saddled me with the 521 page Undaunted Courage by Ambrose, I barely batted an eye. I even took a stab at actually reading the print edition our Stranger Than Fiction discussion leader handed out to us last month when we turned in our Unbroken
copies. I think I made it a couple of hundred pages before I decided
listening to the audiobook would be faster (and less painful on the eyes
grammatically). I checked out the audiobook on CD from the Kansas City Public Library. One thick 521 page paperback translates roughly to
twenty-one hours and twenty-seven minutes (21 hr 27 mins) of narration.
While technically, I could have completed listening to this audiobook
in less than one day, practically and physically, I can only handle
about two to three hours a day of listening, with long breaks between to
give my poor eardrums a rest. The disadvantages to listening include
the absence of 1) maps, 2) illustrations and photographs, 3) footnotes,
4) end notes and 5) the bibliography. The greatest advantage to
listening to the audiobook was not having to learn how to properly
pronounce the names of less commonly known objects, tools and places.
Luckily, I had the best of both worlds at my fingertips.
an incredible amount about Lewis, Clark, Thomas Jefferson, the
Louisiana Purchase and the Corps of Discovery Expedition to find a water
route to the Pacific Ocean via the Missouri River. Since I grew up
within twenty miles of that river, I also grew up with the names "Lewis
& Clark" plastered on various road signs and parks. While I had
some idea of the adventures of those early trailblazing frontiersmen,
Ambrose provided me with an incredible wealth of detail and anecdotal
gems to keep me forging ahead. One of my favorite moments involved a
nearly indestructible grizzly bear and four members of the Expedition.
finished listening to the audiobook edition with just 26 hours to
spare. After a full day of work in the same building, I arrived just a
few minutes past seven o'clock to a nearly full meeting room. A couple
of the usual suspects were missing, but I thought nothing of it since
it's summer time and many normal people take vacations. I arrived in
the middle of a conversation involving the August 2013 edition of Car
& Driver, specifically the review of the 2013 supercharged Land Rover Range Rover, which was tested in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana and specifically mentioned the Lewis & Clark expedition.
Our discussion leader soon roped us back into discussing Undaunted Courage
by relating a hand-written note he received from one disgruntled
Stranger Than Fiction reader. That person only made it to page 28,
where they couldn't stomach the 'run on sentences' and 'sixteen
adjectives for the same word' or the fact that it appeared the author
was being 'paid by the word' to write. 'Life was too short and there
are too many good books to waste time with such poor writing.' I made
the comment that long sentences were the norm for early 19th century
writing, but apparently Ambrose was being accused of this egregious
error. Our leader did confirm that he found a sentence written by
Ambrose that surpassed one and a half pages.
We moved on from that dead-end when one of the readers mentioned that they watched all four hours of the Ken Burns' documentary of Lewis & Clark, which our local PBS station, KCPT, conveniently re-aired in mid-July.
least one reader struggled with this book, commenting it felt too much
like being in a history class. She half-expected to see questions at
the end of each chapter.
Our leader began posing questions to
spark discussion, one of the first being on our definition of
"discovery." Only to the Western World (aka Europeans) could any of
these plants, animals, rivers, mountains, etc. be considered
"discoveries." To the Native Americans, none of it was new or unknown.
He also asked or mentioned a scenario wherein Native Americans hopped
on a boat and visited Europe, is it still considered a "discovery"
because all of that would be new to them?
We also discussed
Sacagawea and the plight of Native American women. Are they just
footnotes in history? Were most of them little better off than slaves,
doing the majority of hard labor for their communities?
speaking of slaves, how about poor old York? He had a good sense of
humor, but was mistreated and not freed upon his return.
With respect to Manifest Destiny,
the Corp of Discovery Expedition was just the first phase (and the
origin of the phrase). There was a religious aspect - God deemed
Europeans should have the North American Continent from short to shore.
Our leader asked us if this was similar to eminent domain today? Or was it just theft?
discussed Jefferson, and by extension, Lewis' policy towards the Native
Americans. Their vision of an American Trade empire and the
integration of the Native Americans proved an impossible mountain to
scale. The 'civilizing' of the Indian Nations by forcing them to become
peaceful among themselves and then ultimately wholly dependent upon
America was either naiveté or hubris or both. With the exception of the
Mandans and the Nez Perce, the Expeditions' interactions with the
Indian Nations were strained at best and left a legacy of lies and
distrust that resulted in even worse relations for generations to come.
Does man ever progress without harm?
At this point, our leader recommended another book by Ambrose entitled Nothing Like It In The World about the transcontinental railroad.
On a lighter note, one of the readers related that her favorite story from Undaunted Courage involved the collapsible boat. Recently, some archeologists believe they have found it near Great Falls, Montana.
related that my favorite story involved the grizzly bear that refused
to die and jumped after two of the Expedition's men from a twenty-foot
high bluff into the Missouri after being shot eight times.
returned to the more depressing tale of Lewis' death. Our leader asked
us if we believed it was murder? We all agreed it was not murder,
unless you consider suicide self-murder. Some contributing factors
could have included the amount of mercury consumed by Lewis (and the
rest of the Expedition). One of the readers noted that archeologists
today have no trouble tracing the Lewis and Clark expedition because of
the incredible amounts of mercury still present at their campsites.
Other contributing factors includes Lewis' alcoholism, use of opiates,
lead poisoning (from being shot), he could have been bipolar and/or
recurrence of malaria.
Suggested field trips included the Lewis & Clark museum in Nebraska City and Ft. Osage in Missouri.
some more tangential and heated discussions on right and wrong, good
and evil, our leader brought us back down to Earth and distributed next
month's book of a much lighter fair: A Walk in the Woods by Billy Bryson
Looks like next month I may get to encounter bears ... again.