October 13, 2009 / 2:42 PM / 9 years ago

Two worlds collide in new Carhart novel

DALLAS (Reuters Life!) - Writer Thad Carhart found the real-life story of Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau so riveting and improbable that he wrote a novel about it.

Writer Thad Carhart is seen in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Simo Neri/Handout

“Across the Endless River,” is set in the vastly different worlds Charbonneau inhabited — the rough and ready U.S. frontier of the early 19th century and an aristocratic Europe recovering from Napoleon’s wars.

Charbonneau was born in 1805 on the famous “Lewis and Clarke expedition” of the American west. His native American mother, Sacagawea, and his French Canadian father were translators on the expedition.

His mother carried him on her back across America with the explorers. He grew up with one foot in the “white man’s” world in St. Louis and the other with the native tribes.

As a young man he met a German aristocrat and enthusiast of natural history who asked Charbonneau to accompany him to Europe to help him sort out his collection of wild animal specimens and native artifacts.

Little is known about Charbonneau’s five years in Europe — a gap in the historical record that provided Carhart with an opportunity to fashion this fictional account. He imagines how Europe would have looked through the eyes of a young man from the American wilderness.

Carhart, a dual citizen of Ireland and the United States, lives in Paris and is the also author of “The Piano Shop on the Left Bank.” He spoke to Reuters about his new book.

Q: This novel is based on real historical characters. Would you describe it as a work of “faction”?

A: “I would not use that word but only because I’ve never heard it before (laughter) ... It is based on fact but it’s a work of the imagination. The principal characters and the contours of their time together, principally Jean-Baptiste, Sacagawea’s son, and Duke Paul ... that I didn’t fiddle with at all. I think when you write historical fiction you’ve got to do your homework.

“But what’s also true is that for their five years together in Europe almost nothing is known about them other than that they went and that Baptiste spent five years in Europe and travelled around with Paul. So that for me was more interesting because it meant that I wasn’t wrestling with a lot of documents and that I could imagine without entirely fabricating what they might have done together.”

Q: What drew you to Baptiste and why did you want to write a fictional account about his story?

A: “I’ve always read history but I’m not a Lewis and Clark buff. But Lewis and Clark were central to my learning of history when I was a boy ... It’s sort of a national myth which happens to be true. I knew about it and I knew about Sacagawea having a baby at the beginning of the expedition and that she carried the baby to the Pacific and back which in its way is a miracle of survival if nothing else.

“But what I didn’t know and what I found out around the time of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, there were a slew of books which started showing up around 2001 and 2002 (ahead of it) ... and that was where I learned that Jean-Baptiste had survived well into the 19th century, and in 1823 had met this German-speaking aristocrat who was studying the plants and animals of the Missouri and had been invited to Europe and had gone.

“And that was entirely captivating ... That to me was a fertile field of circumstance and wonder. He had had his boyhood experiences on the frontier among the native Americans and with the top guy in St. Louis .. To go from there to the heart of Europe with an aristocrat who could open doors. It seemed like an extraordinary destiny or at least a path that was both improbable and interesting.”

Q: Do you think the story has potential to be made into a screenplay?

Thad Carhart's novel 'Across the Endless River' is seen in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Handout

A: “It’s not the starting point but I think you could easily get stuck there. I know I could because you tell the story you want to tell and need to tell but you start thinking how it would look like on the screen.”

Q: Do you have any other book projects in the pipeline?

A: “My next book will be narrative non-fiction.”

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