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Classic review: I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company

Lewis and Clark discovered new lands and peoples, but their greatest challenges led inward.

By Ron Charles / May 17, 2009



[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on Jan. 9, 2003.] Breaking beyond the clich├ęs that accompany Lewis and Clark along their remarkable expedition is a task that requires undaunted courage.

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Over the past 200 years, our vision of that journey through the Louisiana Purchase has grown as shiny and immutable as the image of Sacagawea on that dollar coin which no one uses.

Brian Hall puts it well: "The novelist's privilege is to play the fool, rushing in where historians refrain from treading." His new novel, with its evocative if ungainly title, I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, pursues those brave men across 8,000 miles of unexplored wilderness, but it's most interested in the dark territory of Meriwether Lewis's mind.

Lewis has always been a square peg in a round hole of national myth. His personal and financial troubles, culminating in suicide just three years after he'd become America's most celebrated explorer, hover awkwardly in footnotes, and are expunged entirely from those biographies for young readers.

As a novelist, Hall is concerned with what can't be explained: the blank pages in Lewis's journal, the gnawing pathos of his death, the unresolved contradictions between official records. "I Should Be Extremely Happy" explores these fascinating shadows by dividing the story into its various voices: Lewis, who was President Jefferson's personal secretary; William Clark, Lewis's devoted coleader; Toussaint Charbonneau, a French fur trader who accompanied them into Indian territory; and Sacagawea, the young Shoshone mother who belonged to Charbonneau.

The greatest pleasure of this novel stems from the way Hall portrays these principals, distinguishing not just their voices, but their startlingly different visions of a world in rapid flux.

Charbonneau, the pragmatic trader, speaks in pidgin English about his own crude concerns, never straying far from his envy for other possessions or sexual encounters.

Hall's portrayal of the young Shoshone woman who helped Lewis and Clark is the most demanding - and by far the most daring aspect of the novel. In the afterword, he confesses to considerable anxiety, but ultimately he was motivated by a "conviction that the poverty of a narrative excluding Sacagawea's voice would be worse than the presumption required to include it."

He shouldn't have worried: Her surreal vision of a world blended with native myths and tribal history provides the novel's most haunting moments. Beyond the alien sociology of her life and its ghastly hardships, Sacagawea's impressionistic testimony skirts along the border of coherence, conveying a strikingly un-Western way of thinking about time and reality that can't be captured in even the most sensitive museum diorama.

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