This story begins in 1805 when Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau is born before an advancing wave of white settlers moving westward in North America. His mother is an Indian woman, Sacagawea; his father is French, Toussaint Charbonneau. Carrying her baby on her back, Sacagawea will lead the Lewis and Clark corps party northwest along the Missouri River until they are forced to follow her lead cross the Rocky Mountains.
Upon reaching the Pacific, the explorers and their party build small Fort Clatsop. Sacagawea has nicknamed her son, “Pompy,” meaning Little Chief in honor of her Indian heritage, but throughout Across the Endless River, he is mostly known as Baptiste. As a youngster, he grows up in two places. Part of each year he lives with his Mandan cousins mastering all the physical traits and skills known to Indian braves. He wears moccasins.
He wears shoes the rest of the year, living in Saint Louis in Captain Clark’s house where he is taught the proper manners and customs of white people. Initially, he hates this adaptation, particularly the footwear, shirt, pants, and a brimmed hat.
In spite of his readiness for the agonizing ritual where Indian adolescents are initiated into manhood, because of his mixed blood, Baptiste is spared the tortuous ceremony. He must stand aside as pure-bred braves are skewered through their skin in various places and hung aloft until unconscious — a sure sign that the Great Spirit is moving. Exclusion troubles him deeply because he identifies closely with his Indian roots.
While leading several men to meet real Indians face to face and see them in action on a frenetic buffalo hunt, one of these explorers, a French Duke, realizes Baptiste’s intelligence, particularly his facility with languages. This duke is also a collector of New World specimens he can ship back to Europe—a collection he’ll distribute to influential French scientists and noblemen.
The Duke persuades young Baptiste to journey to Europe with him Across the Endless River. At once he becomes an exotic sensation among high society in France during the years following Napoleon’s defeat. Baptiste’s superb knowledge about the Duke’s preserved wildlife specimens, along with his descriptive tales of Indian life wins him the adulation of the upper echelons of French society. He lives like a prince.
Yet at times when he walks through Paris alone, Baptiste pities the poor of the city. The vast difference between the upper class and commoners troubles him especially when he is warned not to mix with those beneath him.
While they are not bought and sold like slaves in America, still Baptiste cannot understand why French servants are treated with such disdain — as if they are a worthless human lot. He is directed never to use the word “please” when addressing a servant.
Baptiste begins to communicate with Maura, a young woman he meets quite by accident. Her father is a respected wine merchant. At first, they see each other only occasionally — and very formally. More often, they communicate by post. As Across the Endless River develops, even planned reunions are interrupted because of family and/or business matters. Baptiste longs for Maura, yet his attention is drawn elsewhere.
Because of his Adonis-like body, angular face, and dark skin, when introduced in court or attending private parties or balls, Baptiste easily becomes the desire of many women. His penchant for short quick answers rather than dreary periods of societal small talk and gossip makes him all the more mysterious — a foreign erotic. His mystique earns him a torrid love affair with Princess Theresa, a woman much his senior.
To me, the most telling moment in the story occurs when Baptiste finally realizes that he is as much of a specimen from the New World as the duke’s preserved dead samples. As he wearies of Paris, Baptiste longs for his Indian people along America's western frontier. He knows whites are moving westward and wonders about the conflicts sure to come between the Indian and the white settlers. He longs for Maura, a true love whom he hopes might return with him to the Missouri River front.
And here, I will leave Across the Endless River to the reader. The tale is somewhat of an epic considering the journey of a highly intelligent young Indian lad traveling from America’s Wild West to France, Germany, and other European countries, where he lives and moves with grace and ease among high class people ignorant of his background but charmed about stories of Indian lore.
The book is more factual than action oriented. It details the dreary excesses in court life which, although lavish, became overwhelming and tedious to me. Baptiste feels this French society cannot last — the rich, living high and mighty off the backs of lower classes.
I found it difficult to grasp Baptiste’s real character. His quick transition from American Indian/pioneer to high society life seemed unrealistic. Baptiste is intimately aware of white injustice in America toward slaves and his own Indian tribes, yet the man moves among white high society in France aware of the hideous discrepancy between the privileged upper class and commoners including servants who bow and curtsey before him.
Across the Endless River might prove a good read to those who love picturesque historical fiction where places and people are detailed much more than any fascinating actions. All too often, I felt bogged down in a long chain of unexciting events where characters plodded along as if they had no real purpose other than to await the next lavish extravaganza.