A new perspective on Lewis and Clark
Fictional account captures five uniquely American voices
Novelist Brian Hall was already "emotionally committed" to writing a novel about the Lewis and Clark expedition when the long shadow of Stephen Ambrose's magisterial history of the expedition, Undaunted Courage, fell across the landscape. "At first, I was just too busy to read it," Halls says during a phone call to his home in Ithaca, New York, where he lives with his wife, writer Pamela Moss, and their two daughters.
At the time, Hall was completing work on his critically acclaimed novel about a 12-year-old girl growing up in Ithaca, The Saskiad. The book would soon spark a bidding war among European publishers that eventually afforded Hall uninterrupted time to concentrate on his Lewis and Clark novel. It wasn't until 1998 that he found time to sit down and read Ambrose's nonfiction account of the expedition.
"When I did read it," Hall says, "I was relieved to see that what seemed to interest him was not what interested me. It's a really good biography, but my feeling was that Ambrose wasn't as comfortable with some of the really interesting, unsettling questions about Lewis' personality. He likes to tell stories about achievement, success and heroism . . . and I find fascinating the backside of the tapestry, where you see all the loose threads. Our two sets of interests somewhat complement each other."
What Hall finds on the backside of this tapestry is a clash of cultures and large questions about the human psyche. Brilliantly imagining the private, internal story that goes hand in hand with the public story of exploration and triumph, Hall also calls into question some cherished assumptions behind the historical record.
I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company tells the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition and its aftermath through the perspectives of five participants: Sacagawea, the young Shoshone girl who proved so important to the expedition's success; Toussaint Charbonneau, the French fur trader who bought Sacagawea as his wife; William Clark, who is commonly portrayed as the amiable co-captain of the expedition; York, Clark's slave and the only black man on the expedition; and Meriwether Lewis, whose unexpected suicide has made him one of the great enigmas of American history.
Of these, the most beautiful, haunting and disconcerting perspective is that of Sacagawea. "I wanted this layering of the stories of the West, and she's the aboriginal voice," Hall says. "I wanted the book to start out in prehistory, where she talks about the land and where the people live. And I very much wanted it to be strange." So Hall gives Sacagawea a way of speaking and perceiving that is at first disorienting and then luminous.
"The more I read about Native American culture," Halls says, "the more I sensed how very different it was. I never wavered in my determination to have part of the story be told by Sacagawea, but I was certainly aware as I read that there are certain things that I do not see, cannot see, that a Native American writer who is otherwise more or less in my position would see."
Hall's magnificent, sympathetic portrait of Sacagawea will at the very least lead readers to question William Clark's account of how he adopted Sacagawea's son. "Historians have pretty much taken at face value the account that Sacagawea would happily give up her only begotten son," Hall says. "From early on I thought, now wait a minute. A common element of the ethnographic studies early travelers wrote of Native Americans was how surprisingly strong was the parent-child attachment. . . . Trying to think about Sacagawea's particular circumstances, . . . I wondered what is the one thing that would feel like it really belonged to her? Obviously her son. And what does Clark do? He takes the son away from her. No one has looked at this and asked what would this look like from her point of view. It's that kind of obliviousness on Clark's part which historians have had to follow, because of course they have to follow the written record, and we don't have a record of her feelings."
For Meriwether Lewis, on the other hand, there exists a rather thick historical record of letters and journals. What interested Hall in that record was not what it revealed but rather what it concealed. "The Lewis I wanted to understand and bring to life was the Lewis who could eventually get so despairing that he would kill himself," Hall says. "Lewis possessed a fairly extreme articulateness which he used to hide emotions behind, not only from others but from himself. I love the way articulateness can be used to obfuscate things. [Thomas] Jefferson is a supreme example of that, which is why I loved the fact that Jefferson was Lewis' mentor. Jefferson is so smart and yet in some ways so blind. His great felicity with words obscures to him the extreme impracticality of a lot of what he's talking about."
Through his deft portrayal of the unequal relationship between the articulate, mercurial Lewis and the steady, rather unreflective Clark, Hall presents a plausible and moving psychological portrait of Lewis and his "curiously insoluble loneliness." This portrait is the quiet, subtle and singular achievement of I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company.
"Having been born in the East and growing up in Boston," Hall says near the end of our conversation, "I hadn't paid any attention to Lewis and Clark. Until I was asked to write a travel article on this journey of discovery, I didn't know anything about Sacagawea. I didn't know that Lewis had killed himself. So the story hit me all in one big discovery. What excites me about writing something is the idea of trying to take on an unusual perspective and look out through this perspective at the world. What I value about fiction is the different ways it gives you to see the world. The more you read, the more you understand different people. That is the moral function of fiction—a sort of empathy enlarger." Which, of course, is a particularly apt description of I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company.
Alden Mudge is communications director for the California Humanities Council.