Saturday, February 18, 2006

A Review of Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose

If you're anything like me, then the mere thought of reading a book dealing with any chapter of American history is sure to churn up bad memories of hours upon hours of boring lectures from high school or college classes. Once I finished school, I was sure that I had closed the door on my American history studies for good.

Then I received the book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by noted historian Stephen E. Ambrose as a gift. At first, I really had no intention of reading the tome, not only because it was so long (512 pages in my hardcover edition) but also because it dealt with a subject that I was not particularly interested in. However, I heard such good things about the book that I finally decided to give it a try during a lengthy transatlantic flight that I had scheduled.

In case you don't know, Undaunted Courage is a book about the great Lewis & Clark expedition, commissioned by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, to find an all-water route from the Mississippi river to the Pacific Ocean, which could potentially be used for both trade and military purposes. Ambrose covers the period immediately before, during, and shortly after the actual journey, which took place from 1803-1806.

Unfortunately for me, the book started out painfully slow. Ambrose, in an attempt to set the stage for the incredible journey and to introduce the major characters, gives an excruciatingly detailed account of the preparations for the journey. The author had access to the journals of Lewis and Clark, as well as other historical documents from the period, so he is fully able to tell us exactly what kind of provisions the men bought (and in what quantities) as well as the way they selected the other men who would make up their crew. In addition, the whole expedition had trouble getting off the ground due to good old fashioned bureaucracy and political red tape -- and of course we get the details of that, too.

However, since I was stuck on an airplane and didn't have anything else to do, I decided to plod along and hope for the best. I sure am glad I did! Once Lewis, Clark, and the rest of the Corps of Discovery actually set off on their journey, Undaunted Courage suddenly became an incredibly exciting adventure story. Most of the anecdotes from the journey come from Lewis' journals, and he is definitely the main character, so to speak, of the book. Ambrose does a terrific job of interweaving Lewis' memories with additional historical background and commentary to give the reader a better sense of what was going on, and also of the enormity of the undertaking.

Until I read this book, I did not know that the Lewis and Clark journey was largely responsible for making numerous discoveries of "new" plant and animal life west of the Mississippi. Lewis was especially accomplished in this area, and would often choose to walk for six to eight hours every day while the boats pushed ahead so that he could collect samples, sketch what he saw, and otherwise record his observations. Lewis' journal entries clearly demonstrate his enthusiasm for this undertaking and the seriousness with which he went about executing President Jefferson's orders.

In spite of these early days of bliss, the journey wasn't always a walk in the park. The Corps of Discovery faced several dangers along the way, including the threat of attack from a few of the more vicious Native American tribes that they encountered. The Corps also had to deal with brutal weather, low morale, and an unvaried diet.

If you know just a little bit about American history, then you know how the journey ended. But the beauty of this book lies not so much what Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery did or didn't do, but with how they did it. It's hard to sum up Undaunted Courage without sounding a bit corny, but once I finished reading the book I felt extremely proud of Lewis and Clark, and of what they had done for America.

For a superb account of the celebrated Lewis and Clark journey, I highly recommend that you read Undaunted Courage. It is one of the truly amazing adventure stories in American history.

Book Review

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