Sunday, November 23, 2008

Book Review: "Champlain's Dream"

David Hackett Fischer's latest great thick book is Champlain's Dream (Simon & Schuster, 2008), not only a full-scale biography of French explorer and colonial advocate Samuel de Champlain but also a detailed history of the first few decades of French settlement in North America, and even quite a bit more besides.

In the first 530 pages of this book, Fischer tells us Champlain's story from beginning to end, starting with a fascinating chapter on his natal region in the middle part of France's west coast during the mid-sixteenth century and proceeding through Champlain's long life as a tireless promoter of French activities in North America. There is much here that I didn't know of Champlain before, including that he made a semi-surreptitious trip to New Spain (1599-1601), that he explored the waters of midcoast Maine as far south as today's Bath (1605), and that he made twenty-seven Atlantic crossings in thirty-seven years (unlike our friend Hakluyt, England's tireless promoter of colonialism, Champlain actually practiced what he preached - no offense intended to Mr. Hakluyt of course).

Fischer is kind to Champlain, but it almost seems like it would be a stretch not to be. The man worked tirelessly to promote French expansionism, but he also worked at very turn to foster and maintain good relations with the Indian tribes of the St. Lawrence valley and beyond (he railed against mistreatment of the native peoples by his fellow European, French or otherwise, and while he did make war against hostile tribes, Fischer argues he did so at the behest of his allies in the interest of bringing about a wider peace - a policy which was quite successful for several decades). Unlike so many colonialists of the period, Champlain diligently studied what had been done before and sought to correct his predecessors' mistakes, so his colonies typically did not suffer the kinds of catastrophic collapses and high mortality rates experienced at other early settlements.

Champlain's political and business dealings in France are also covered in a detailed but integrated fashion, as Fischer guides the reader through the difficult and tumultuous waters of France under Henry IV, Marie de Medici, and Louis XIII. Every time poor Champlain got things going right in Canada, he'd get back to France and find everything on its head - and yet somehow he always managed to set it all to rights again. By the end of his life, a major population explosion had begun in Canada as more families began to emigrate to the settlements and begin to create a culture there.

As is his wont (see his earlier book Albion's Seed), Fischer supplies a chapter on Canadian folkways, examining the dialects, architectures and other aspects of early Québécois and Acadian cultures based on the French regional origins of their residents.

Following the main narrative Fischer has tacked on a whole bunch of interesting bits, all printed in very tiny type. A thirty-five page historiographical essay examines the ups and downs (and now ups again) of Champlain's reputation as recorded by historians (American, European and Canadian), while shorter essays examine certain unresolved questions about Champlain's life and works, including his birthdate, the accuracy of some of his writings, &c.). Finally, other appendices provide useful background, including a chronology of Champlain's travels, short sketches of his superiors and an examination of the Indian nations he dealt with, plus data on the ships, guns, terms of measurement, money and calendars mentioned in the text. And then there are the 110 pages of densely-packed notes, followed by the forty-plus page bibliography, rich with interesting goodies. If it weren't so interesting, it might all seem a bit much - but it works.

A fine book, and almost certainly the biography of Champlain at least for our lifetimes.