Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Core" of Discovery: Nick Bertozzi's graphical Lewis & Clark

Nick Bertozzi is out with a splendid graphical overview of the journey of Lewis & Clark, fresh from First Second. That'd be "Meriwether" and "William," of course, those plucky adventurers sent by Thomas Jefferson to explore the then-unknown (to most European-Americans) West, along with their handpicked Corps of Discovery.

Of course, not everyone had a choice in the matter: Clark's slave York, though treated more "equally" out on the trail than he would be "back home," didn't actually "sign up" for the adventure. So too the fabled Sacagawea, encountered that first winter in the Dakotas as a pregnant teenage mom. She'd been sold/traded to her older husband, Charbonneau, by the tribe that had originally captured and enslaved her.

So -- somewhat fittingly -- this first great domestic American adventure had two slaves in it. And if not for Sacagawea, it might not have succeeded, since her presence allowed successful (and literal) horse-trading with the Shoshone tribe -- the very one from which Sacagawea had been kidnapped when she was 13. Those horses allowed the Corps to make it to Pacific Coast (and back to their boats, parked in the inter-mountain west, the next spring).

If I go on about this particular Exploration, it's because I'm one of its "fans," from a history buff's perspective. So much that is essential to the American experiment -- and its present, clearly faltering state -- is contained in that journey: the high hopes, the contradictions between aspirations and eventual fall-out (Lewis is shown ruminating the fate of Native Americans, now that the "West" had been opened up, perhaps mindful of his role in the coming, inexorable atrocities).

The book even touches on the failure of the Corps' worldly success to quell inner demons -- certainly those of Lewis. The Corps had become the early 19th century versions of "media stars" upon their return, thanks to the copious journals the group kept.

My third "Danger Boy" book was about Lewis, Clark, Jefferson, and many of those contradictions. Of course, I insert a 21st century boy into the mix (along with a dinosaur and teenage girl from Alexandria -- Egypt, that is, not Virginia) to ratchet up those contractions. But I spent about a year steeped in Lewis/Clark-iana, and I never tire of learning new facets about that particular odyssey.

As for the retelling here, Bertozzi works in straightforward fashion, starting with a stormy-eyed Lewis being summoned from his bed by President Jefferson. And while Bertozzi lets events unfold in linear, chronological fashion, his "camera," as it were, spends most of its time looking over Lewis' shoulder, ending -- nearly -- with Lewis' suicide at Grinder's Inn along the Natchez Trace.

I say "nearly," because there's another coda after that -- think of "Return of the King's" multiple endings -- recounting an apocryphal version of Sacagawea's own passing. If you know Lewis & Clark's journeys already, you'll love seeing various moments, events -- seasons (the winter at Ft. Mandan) -- put "on screen," as it were. If you don't, this is a splendid primer, although Bertozzi packs in so much, without annotation (there's no narration and little captioning, it's primarily "present tense" dialogue) that you might need to, well, pause and annotate things yourself, to better understand what you've just seen.

But as with the Corps, the journey will be worth it.

A different form of this review appeared in Nexus Graphica

1 comment :

Colleen said...

I really like how they let Sacawagea's story end - no one knows what really happened to her but this was a nice (and deserving) touch.