Anyone who thinks history is the dry and dusty stuff of book shelves - hardly worth spending time on when space (and cyberspace) are to be explored - has never joined up with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
Yes, their journey to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific took place nearly 200 years ago. But two recent books make it possible to take that 8,000-mile trek along with the two captains appointed by Thomas Jefferson to head the Corps of Discovery.
The Essential Lewis and Clark, by Landon Jones, takes the 900,000 words written by Lewis and Clark during their adventure (both were detailed and habitual notetakers) and turns them into a gripping page-turner. He does it by editing out most of the detailed field notes involving scientific findings (plants, animals, geology, celestial observations, etc.) and concentrating on the human drama.
This involves not only the three dozen men under Lewis and Clark's command, whose courage and loyalty in the face of many dangers were striking, but also the native Americans encountered along the way. Among them was the teenage Shosone guide and translator Sacagawea, certainly one of the most remarkable women in American history, as well as many other tribal men and women who helped the discoverers and in turn were helped by Lewis and Clark.
What makes this generally compassionate and trusting relationship all the more poignant, of course, is that we now know how things turned out for this country's Indians within just a few decades.
An excellent companion to Jones's work is The Saga of Lewis & Clark: Into the Uncharted West, by historian Thomas Schmidt and naturalist Jeremy Schmidt, brothers who live in the mountain West. The Schmidts take turns telling the story in "you are there" fashion with occasional personal observations from their own extensive travels along the route as well as excerpts from journals kept by members of the Corps of Discovery.
What makes this work especially valuable (and enjoyable) is the accompanying artwork. It's packed with sketches and maps made during the trip, pictorial timelines, archival images of Indian art, and photos of the prairies, rivers, and mountains through which Lewis and Clark traveled.
Among these are historical works by famed photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis and paintings by Charles Russell, as well as many outstanding images by contemporary Montana photographer Wayne Mumford. It's remarkable how little much of the beautiful and rugged landscape has changed over the centuries.
Despite the dangers and constant hardships (including accidents, illness, and near-starvation), only one man was lost along the way.
"During their journey, and in their journals," Jones writes in his introduction, "Lewis and Clark
LEWIS AND CLARK
Edited by Landon Jones
203 pp., $24
THE SAGA OF
LEWIS & CLARK
By Thomas Schmidt
and Jeremy Schmidt
created an epic, one whose effect on our collective imagination has made it, over time, the unofficial Odyssey of American history.
"Like the Greek hero, Lewis and Clark embarked on a voyage into the unknown that took them away from home and family so long [more than two years] that they were given up for dead. Theirs is not merely a diary of a journey; it is a heroic saga complete with powerful characters, enraged monsters, violent conflicts, startling twists in plot, wry humor, and unexpected acts of compassion."
Several recent works on Lewis and Clark have received high praise, in particular biographer Stephen Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage" (Simon & Schuster) and Ken Burns's PBS television documentary. Told here by the Schmidt brothers - and especially by the two explorers themselves in Jones's selection of passages that reveal in depth their complementary personalities - it's an odyssey well worth joining.
*Brad Knickerbocker is a special correspondent of the Monitor in Ashland, Ore.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society