Although a work of fiction, A Promising Life by Emily Arnold McCully reads like nonfiction with its rich history of the early 1800s and its biographic-like details. The novel tells the story of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, born among explorers on the Lewis and Clark Expedition to Toussaint Charbonneau and Sakakawea. Half French Canadian and half Shoshone, Baptiste is métis American, but he finds himself caught by social circumstances that don’t wholly accept him.
Called Pompey, or Pomp, which means “the promising one,” Baptiste is favored by William Clark, so when his parents leave him in Clark’s care and travel upriver from St. Louis to a new fort, Clark becomes Baptiste’s benefactor and pays for his schooling. Even though a chair is unfamiliar to Baptiste, he becomes a “chair sitter” so that he can learn, as his mother has commanded. As Baptiste comes of age, Sakakawea’s spirit continues to urge him to make the most of himself.
Despite the missing-his-mother sadness, Baptiste soon befriends François, and the two become not only the best students but also roommates. At night, they compare experiences, spin tales, predict the future, and discuss such matters as who can run faster and who can shoot more arrows. From schooling, both boys learn that they don’t want to be tied down. They’re climbing the ladder to manhood and wondering about the promising life that awaits them at the top.
Driven by a desire to live up to his mother’s dreams for him, Baptiste reads widely the scholarship of Plutarch, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as the ideas of Voltaire, Lucretius, and Cicero. He also learns to dance like other refined gentlemen, and when he encounters famous personalities like Jim Bridger, Michael Faraday, William Ashley, John Scott, and Jacob Astor, he gathers experiences that teach him about the world. As he observes governance in the Louisiana Territory, Baptiste learns how power is apportioned and sees how whiskey influences white men’s votes and persuades Indians to sign treaties and trade furs.
Although Baptiste doesn’t know what school is preparing him for, he loves learning when it’s not a contest. The sharing of ideas with like minds stimulates him; however, the characteristic that especially marks Baptiste as unique is his curiosity and his willingness to ask questions:
- Is it wrong to benefit from the white man’s way of life while others suffer from it?
- If money is the root of all evil, why does it seem to be the greatest driver of men?
- While one man’s opportunity is apparently another man’s misfortune, is it possible for anyone to prosper without taking from somebody else?
- Does taking people from their native cultures rob them of vital qualities, or do they gain something?
Well-aware that observations drawn from books do not equal personal experience, Baptiste increases his marksmanship, horsemanship, and participation with nature so as to be more self-reliant. He also travels with the high-spirited Duke Paul of Württemberg who visits American for scientific study. In Germany, Baptiste experiences how friends can be snatched away by “stupid customs and cruel masters,” and in Egypt he visits Pompey’s Pillar, the single column standing on a rocky hilltop in the middle of Alexandria. This trip gives Baptiste some insight into why William Clark calls him ‘Pomp’ and why Clark engraved his name on a prominent rock formation, overlooking the Yellowstone River about 25 miles east of what is now Billings, Montana, and named the anomalous structure Pompey’s Pillar while on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Baptiste also realizes that his perseverance and abilities alone have not contributed to his achievements; the favor of his benefactors—first William Clark and now Paul—as well as the time period of Scientific Enlightenment play their role.
As it imparts considerable history, McCully’s book has much to say about the costs of oppression and ignorance. It also shares ideas about how living up to expectation and examples is itself a kind of oppression, although self-imposed.
- Posted by Donna