Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Book review: "Undaunted Courage" by Stephen E. Ambrose

About a third of the way into "Undaunted Courage," I began to feel disappointed. Not disappointed in the book, but rather disappointed by the fact that I knew how the Lewis and Clark expedition turned out. Had I not known, I thought, this book could be a tantalizing will-they-make-it adventure story.

But here's the surprise: This is a great adventure story anyway. Lewis and Clark's expedition had to overcome so many obstacles that the reader, even knowing the ultimate outcome, can't help but be engaged.

I was struck by how often Lewis and Clark almost DIDN'T make it. Their boats nearly overturned, they were attacked by grizzly bears and Indians, they ventured onward despite near starvation, harsh weather, sickness, accidents and various wrong turns. Author Stephen Ambrose seems to include just right pieces of information to keep the drama going.

A tip to readers: Try not to peak ahead in the story by looking at the maps too early. You'll find more suspense in the tale if you're not totally sure where they're going.

Ambrose gave the book the rather unwieldy full title, "Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West," but his research is so impressively thorough you can't complain. He doesn't make up quotes or try to add artificial color he gives us only what can be supported in the historical record.

Ambrose does adds important commentary at critical times, assessing Lewis's personality and providing historical perspective on the accomplishments of the expedition.

One nitpick: I wish Ambrose had done more to describe the physical characteristics of the areas where Lewis and Clark traveled. E.g.: Was it a pine forest? Open prairie? Thick brush? Too often I had to build that image on my own.

It's important to note that this is not just a story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, though that is the bulk of the book. This is a biography of Meriwether Lewis. The expedition section is the best part of the book, and it might be tempting to skip over the other parts.

But the beginning offers nice background details about Lewis, describes his close relationship with Thomas Jefferson, and gives the reader a foundation for understanding the purpose and importance of the expedition. The ending describes Lewis faltering post-expedition life. This, unfortunately, can't help but be sad.


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