The late Stephen Ambrose, who brought the Lewis and Clark expedition to life for adult readers in his best-selling book Undaunted Courage, does the same for young people in This Vast Land: A Young Man's Journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. This fictional account of the famous westward excursion is Ambrose's final book and his only work for young readers.
Eighteen-year-old George Shannon, an enterprising young man from Philadelphia anxious to join the expedition, convinces Captain Meriwether Lewis that neither his youth nor his genteel upbringing should be held against him. Lewis eventually accepts Shannon, charging him with the responsibility of keeping a journal of their travels.
Through Shannon's words, Ambrose portrays the sense of wonder and wariness of this band of pioneers, braving the elements, boredom and other challenges in their quest to expand the nation one day, one mile at a time. As if to mirror the growth of the nation, Shannon develops from a relatively innocent youth to a hardened frontiersman. Though faced with dangerous situations and dishonorable dealings from various Native Americans, he refuses to generalize and condemn all: "I cannot agree with Capt. Louis [sic] that [they] are savages. Some of them are to be sure, . . . but this does not mean all Indians are."
Lewis and Clark complete their assignment, but the story does not end there. The narrative continues many years later, with Shannon, now an established attorney, hailing his colleagues in commemorative ceremonies, defending their actions and refuting historical inaccuracies.
Ambrose writes in the vernacular of the era, with intentionally incorrect spellings, which can be distracting at times. Parents and teachers should also be cautioned that there is a fair amount of violence in the book, as well as some brief but fairly explicit sexual material. Still, Ambrose's novel is an imaginative and informative account that puts a human face on an expedition that helped to shape a nation.
Ron Kaplan writes from Montclair, New Jersey. Copyright 2003 BookPage Reviews