Patrick Shannon’s well-researched novel explores the hubris, cruelty, and challenges of Robert La Salle’s expeditions in the American Midwest.
Covering 1672 to 1687, the novel captures the two prongs of La Salle’s great ambition to explore the Mississippi and establish outposts to control trade along the river. Harassed by hostile native tribes, creditors, French politics, and the terrain, La Salle cuts short his exploration of the Mississippi delta, which proves fatal to his later attempts to establish a colony. Instead, he lands in what is now Texas and loses his ships, soldiers, settlers, and eventually his life when his men mutiny. In this portrait of his expeditions, Shannon punctures the hero myth and portrays a man who is maniacal, paranoid, brutish, greedy, short-sighted, and inept.
The historical events alone provide compelling drama, although the author explains outcomes in advance, forestalling any suspense. He portrays the colonizing mindset well, showing how the Illinois and Iroquois of Part 1, then those French settlers called the Cenis, Tensas, and Karankawa of Part 2 remain barbarous to the Europeans as the encroachers exploit but little understand their culture.
The squeamishness of the French around the torture and cannibalism reportedly practiced by the native peoples seems odd, considering the brutality they inflict on one another. Shannon makes La Salle’s journeys intelligible to readers by using modern names for rivers and landmarks. However, conversation sounds modern, too, without an attempt to replicate the beliefs of 17th century philosophy, science, geography, theology, or social class.
The prose is often choppy, with distracting grammatical errors and unnecessary line breaks. Aside from Tonty and Joutel, two of the more intelligent soldiers, the characters are lightly sketched and one-dimensional, save for La Salle, who has two modes: irrational anger and pig-headed resolve.
Nonetheless, the novel provides a fascinating peek into an important moment in the tide of European settlement. For readers who enjoy tales of discovery and challenge, this book offers adventures in spades.
Also available in paperback and ebook.