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The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale Of Love, Murder, And Survival In The Amazon Hardcover – April 13, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

As was customary for girls from elite families in 18th-century colonial Peru, Isabel Gramesón was barely a teenager when she married Jean Godin, a Frenchman visiting the territory as an assistant on a scientific expedition. Planning to bring his wife back to France, Godin trekked across South America to check in with the French colonial authorities, but was refused permission to return up the Amazon back into Spanish territory to retrieve Isabel. So they remained a continent apart for 20 years until 1769, when Isabel started making her way east. Her party ran aground on the Bobonaza River (which feeds into the Amazon), and though almost everyone perished, she managed to survive alone in the rainforest for weeks. Although science journalist Whitaker doesn't directly refer to his own modern trek following Isabel's route down the Bobonaza, his descriptions of the conditions she would have encountered convey his familiarity with the territory, often quite viscerally, ("There are giant stinging ants, ants that bite, and ants that both bite and sting"). His account of the French expedition that brought Godin to Peru and then separated him from his new wife is equally vivid, with exhilarating discoveries and petty squabbles-and richly illustrated with contemporary drawings. Though an early, long digression tracing the history of attempts to measure the size of the earth may establish the context a little too solidly, making some readers impatient, they'll certainly be hooked once the story really begins. Isabel and Jean's adventures are riveting enough on their own, and colonial South America's largely unfamiliar history adds another compelling layer to this well-crafted yarn.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–Whitaker merges a gripping account of scientific exploration with an amazing story of survival in the wilderness. For those who think of the Enlightenment only in terms of sedate Paris salons, this book will alter that image forever. The best minds of Europe in the 1730s knew that the Earth was not perfectly round, but the exact size and shape were in hot debate. Someone figured out that to nail down the answer certain data was needed, and that the best place to get that data was at the equator. Given the technological and political realities of the time, that meant one place: Peru. A scientific expedition was organized in Paris and sent to the New World in 1735. After 10 years of incredible hardships and setbacks, it accomplished its mission (and a host of other enlightenments along the way). As captivating as this story proved to be, another developed: a young member of the party met, fell in love with, and married an upper-class, 13-year-old Peruvian girl. Due to a tangled swirl of unfortunate events, this couple became separated for 20 years (beginning just before the birth of their only child). Finally, in 1769, Isabel Gramesón set off on a trek through the most inhospitable of jungles to rejoin her husband in French Guiana. The author's depiction of that harrowing journey is the crowning jewel of this outstanding volume.–Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, CA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (April 13, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0738208086
  • ISBN-13: 978-0738208084
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,323,689 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Robert Whitaker is the author of four books: Mad in America, The Mapmaker's Wife, On the Laps of Gods and Anatomy of an Epidemic. His newspaper and magazine articles on the mentally ill and the pharmaceutical industry have garnered several national awards, including a George Polk Award for medical writing and a National Association of Science Writers Award for best magazine article. A series he cowrote for the Boston Globe on the abuse of mental patients in research settings was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan Stewart on July 7, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Note to fellow reviewers: this is not a Sidney Sheldon novel. Whitaker uses the "true tale of love, murder and survival in the Amazon" as an excuse to delve deeply into the history of the study of the shape of the earth, socio-political conditions of the day (the 16th Century), and the motivations of the principles and their nations, leaving very few tangents un-investigated. While this may frustrate those readers expecting romance and intrigue, rest assured that this book is by no means boring. Instead, it is a thoroughly-researched window into the past where, by the time Whitaker finally gets around to the "survival" part of the story, the reader is deeply immersed in the mindset of the times, placing everything that happens into proper perspective.
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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Celia Redmore on June 10, 2004
Format: Hardcover
A century after Galileo had been forced to publicly recant his heliocentric model of the solar system, Western Europe was engaged in frenzy of global exploration and scientific investigation. Explorers urgently needed better maps and navigational systems. Scientists were competing to accurately determine the shape of the Earth. Add in a little political intrigue and you have the subject of The Mapmaker's Wife: a 1735 French mapmaking expedition to Peru that lasted a decade.
The European Enlightenment was an extraordinary time for all intellectuals. France was the center of scientific research: Spain concentrated on exploring - and occupying - the new world. When French scientists suggested a journey to the Andes to measure the lines of latitude and longitude there and settle the question of the shape of the Earth, King Louis XV saw a chance to get information on the closely guarded Spanish empire.
Robert Whitaker has won acclaim for his scientific journalism and he brings all his skills to The Mapmaker's Wife. The real story of 18th century mapmaking is more exciting than any fiction and the characters involved are full of life. As part of his research for the book, the author traveled to South America. Although he doesn't mention his own travels in the book, the detailed descriptions of what travelers encountered could only have been written by someone who knew the region.
The mapmaker's wife only appears towards the end of the book. Isobel Godin was a Peruvian who had married one of the younger members of the mapmaking expedition. After waiting twenty years for him to return, she set out east across the Amazon jungle to find him. Her journey became one of the great survivor stories of the century and nicely complements the experiences of the French mapmakers in their journey west.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Richard Sawyer on February 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a well told account of exploration and scientific discovery in the Amazon during the 18th century. Most of the book is concerned with a team of French mapmakers' investigation to determine the exact size and shape of the Earth, which was a crucial scientific question of the day. The author has skillfully utilized both primary and secondary source material as well as his own knowledge and travels in South America to write an engaging history. The cultural, social and political backdrop of 18th century South America, within the context of European exploration and colonization, is well described. The mapmakers' explorations, mainly around the Amazon, are brought vividly to life, reflecting it seems the author's own experiences in this land, as well as his study of primary source material. The part of the story (reflected in the book title) concerning one of the mapmaker's wife's arduous journey to find her husband actually comprises only the last part of the book. In this regard, the book seems mistitled, which has been mentioned by other reviewers. One wonders if the book title was for marketing purposes, and if so, this is somewhat unfortunate. The book is beautifully illustrated with drawings of the exploration and other scenes of the times. A helpful list of characters and maps are also included. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy books on exploration, scientific discovery, and history of South American and European exploration.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By N. Everest on January 14, 2005
Format: Hardcover
A book well worth reading, but it may not be what you expect.

The title is a bit misleading as Jean Godin is not truly a mapmaker nor is the book mostly about his wife. The first half of this book is almost entirely about the French expedition to colonial Peru in the early 1700's, the politics and science behind it, and the different personalities which comprise it. I did find this reading enjoyable, but I became a little frustrated when each time the plot seemed to get rolling again, Whitaker would take 10 pages to explain the geography of Peru or the history of Spain. If you're science minded, like me, you'll get a good dose of history that you would not have otherwise chosen to read or learn.

The story, what there is of it, is adventurous and entertaining, especially for the outdoor enthusiast. The history, politics, geography, and bugs he talks about do truly add to the understanding of the fate of the characters. He has brought to life a story that has been handed down only as legend. Whitaker does his best to compile all the facts, but there are still some things about this tale that we will never know.

I also felt misled by the subtitle, "A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon." Though it was all of these, it was written more like a history book than a novel. So if you're looking for romance, you won't find it here. The facts are laid out one by one leaving you to make your own pictures as to what the people looked like or the dialogue they had.

One ironic note: for a book titled "The Mapmaker's Wife", the maps are rather simplistic. No scales, keys, north arrows, or even a list of maps in the contents. There is a list of maps in the index, however, along with other helpful information.
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