Shelf life 

A Lewis and Clark reading list

Lewis and Clark books? Yeah, we’ve seen a few. A few dozen, more like, all published just this year! To help you find your bearings amidst the deluge of new scholarship and storytelling now underway, here’s a selection of new-ish books about Lewis and Clark, the Corps of Discovery and related topics for which we’ve received review copies in the past nine months. As future publishing history will no doubt bear out, this is just the beginning.

Lewis and Clark on the Great Plains: A Natural History (Paul A. Johnsgard; 144 pages, softcover, University of Nebraska Press, $14.95)
Slight but info-packed reference work with drawings, descriptions and all manner of interesting tidbits about over 100 mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and plants mentioned, described and in some cases discovered by Lewis and Clark on the Great Plains. Author/illustrator Johnsgard breaks the voyage of discovery into six separate legs between Missouri and Western Montana; many species, like the bison, make multiple appearances. Also includes current data on range, population and so on for most of the plant and animal species described, as well as subsequent taxonomic refinements to Lewis and Clark’s sometimes erroneous classifications. Excellent reference volume.

The True Account (Howard Frank Mosher; 352 pages, hardcover, Houghton-Mifflin, $24)
Reviewed earlier this year in the Independent, Vermont writer Howard Frank Mosher’s contribution to Lewis and Clarkiana is an inspired bit of picaresque that follows the slightly loopy Private Teague True Kinneson overland along the Corps of Discovery’s route in advance of the expedition itself. And a lucky thing, that—to hear Mosher tell it, if it weren’t for the fictional Private True, Clark and company would have been wiped out at least twice, once by hostile Sioux and again by a roving Spanish “force of terror” straight out of a Luis Buñuel film. An entertaining read, and a timely counterweight to the current momentum of grimly earnest Lewis and Clark scholarship.

It Happened on the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Erin H. Turner; 118 pages, softcover, Globe Pequot Press, $9.95)
For the young adults in your life, the adventures of Lewis and Clark written “in an easy-to-read style that is entertaining and informative [and] recounts captivating moments from our nation’s early history.” A good place to start for those caught completely unawares by mounting bicentennial fever—no need to feel guilty for reading over Junior’s shoulder, same as with the Harry Potter books. Part of an ongoing series that includes James Crutchfield’s It Happened in Montana, Turner’s book includes a fun “potpourri” chapter of miscellaneous Lewis and Clark facts. Did you know, for example, that when the expedition ran out of medals to fob off on tribal leaders they encountered along the way, they started passing out shiny brass buttons from spare officers’ coats? Ug. No parley with cheapskate paleface. Ug.

Traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail (ed. Julie Faneslow; 308 pages, softcover, Falcon Guides, $15.95)
Bicycling the Lewis and Clark Trail (ed. Michael McCoy; 216 pages, softcover, Falcon Guides, $16.95)

Here’s another interesting Lewis and Clark tidbit: Among the many natural wonders of Montana mentioned in Clark’s journals is Giant Springs, near Great Falls, which gushes forth—at the rate of 134,000 gallons per minute—water absorbed by limestone formations in the area hundreds of years earlier. Not only that, but it’s the headwaters of the world’s shortest river, the Roe, which flows just over 200 feet before joining the Missouri. Both attractions are listed and described in detail in Traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail, one of two excellent new recreational/traveling-history-buff guidebooks from Falcon. Ample maps and useful information on camping, lodging and eating (some of it a bit outdated—poignantly, Missoula’s old Black Dog Cafe is still listed), and plenty insider-y without giving away all the secluded spots and little local secrets.

The Lewis and Clark Companion: An Encyclopedic Guide to the Voyage of Discovery (Stephanie Ambrose Tubbs with Clay Straus Jenkinson; 346 pages, hardcover, Henry Holt, $30)
A great one-stop reference work loaded with entries on historic figures, locations, and generally interesting sidelines relevant to the exploration of the Louisiana Purchase—like having a whole book full of intriguing footnotes. The book contains tons of information about plants and animals, and devotes a good amount of space to the material culture of the natives Lewis and Clark encountered in their travels: weapons, clothing, games and household materials. And does the following Mandan pastime sound strangely contemporary to you? “The women,” writes a German prince who wintered among that tribe in 1833, “are expert in playing with a large leathern ball which they let fall alternately on their foot and knee, again throwing it up and catching it, thus keeping it in motion for a length of time without letting it fall to the ground. Prizes are given, and they often play high.” Adjust the size of the ball, the prevailing sex of the players and the matter of prizes being given and you’ve got what the wags call “unemployment ball,” aka hacky-sack.

I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company (Brian Hall; 448 pages, hardcover, Viking, $26)
Novelist Brian Hall goes where no explorer—including Lewis or Clark—has gone before, treating us to an interpolative clearing-up of many mysteries surrounding the expedition and finally shedding much-needed light on the subject of Sacagawea’s bowel movements. Also reviewed in the Independent earlier this year, I Should Be Extremely Happy is a densely written probe, dripping with evocative and sometimes confusing imagery, into the mental topography of Lewis, Clark and others on the expedition, but the narrative ultimately gets lost in its own fancy interpretive footwork. A nobly undertaken mess, said our reviewer, that nonetheless leaves readers with plenty to think about and admire.

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