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Customer Review

67 of 68 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Historical/Adventure Literature, January 16, 2004
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This review is from: The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Lewis & Clark Expedition) (Paperback)
This would be, if I could do it, a two-part review. To the source material itself, the journals, I would award five stars out of five--six out of five, even, spelling errors and all, for it's absolutely superb stuff. I have read a fair bit in the adventure and exploration line of literature, but nothing as good as these journals for conveying what it felt like to be on such an expedition. Often, it is the little detail at the end of a day's entry that works the magic; for example, when you read several dozen times about the mosquitoes and gnats being "verry troublesome," or "exceedingly troublesome," it tells you something. As does Lewis's quiet contentment with a bellyful of fresh meat after a long and weary hike. And, as Stephen Ambrose notes in his moving and evocative foreword to this book, the fact that these are on-the-fly journal entries--not memoirs--means that the reader sees the good and the bad choices, the discovery that went on along the way. You will probably recognize at once, for instance, that not all grizzlies will be as easy to kill as the first one the corps encounters, but they don't know that, and you are there to read of their changing opinion of these bears as they meet more and more of them. So the raw material is first rate.
The second part of my review would be for the editing, and I would give that four stars out of five. DeVoto, for all his erudition, does make something of a nuisance of himself from time to time. In the first place, he was clearly writing for the "Manifest Destiny" camp of historians--an outlook now taken with a few grains of salt. Here he is, for example, commenting on the earliest hostile encounter with an Indian tribe, "Indian bluster immediately collapsed and from then on the terrible Tetons were mere beggars. The moral of the episode was that a new breed of white men had come to the Upper Missouri, one that could not be scared or bullied. The moral was flashed along the Indian underground faster than the expedition traveled. It explains why the captains were received with such solicitous respect by the Arikaras," etc (p.34). So there's a bit of that sort of thing to put up with. Also, for reasons I cannot fathom, DeVoto inserts bridging passages, paraphrases, in certain spots rather than using actual journal entries. One of these is the death and burial of the expedition's one fatality. How did the captains and the other men react to this? I would have liked to know that. There's another such paraphrase covering Sacagawea's incredible meeting with her long-lost brother. What did Lewis and Clark think of that amazing coincidence? We're not told by this book.
All in all, however, this is a magnificent read, and my quibbles above don't detract materially from its enjoyment. If I have one suggestion for anyone looking to read this, however, it would be to view Ken Burns's extraordinary PBS documentary on the expedition first; your library should have it.
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