The other day my wife shared with me a short biography of Samuel de Champlain that my mother-in-law had found, Louise Hall Tharp’s “Champlain: Northwest Voyager.” It’s a small, dusty, hardcover first edition from 1944 aimed at young readers from a very different era.
To wit, the young mapmaker and aspiring explorer says things like, “I’m fourteen, but I’d pass for more, and I’m strong as a man,” or “You’re a good chap, Dan — and I’d like to be going with you. You and I would find out all about the river, and the savages, too,” or (my personal favorite) “Do I have to study Ptolemy in Greek, Father?”
I also enjoyed Tharp’s take on that moment 400 summers ago when Champlain sees the lake we all take for granted for the first time:
“Then one morning the river came to an end. Just ahead was a wide opening in the forest trees, and Champlain found himself facing a beautiful lake. The blue waters stretched on and on, till they were lost in mist, while on every side were delightful little islands covered with trees. ‘The savages told me — ‘ breathed Champlain — ‘but I did not believe there could be such a lovely lake in the world!’
“Dan and Eustace smiled at each other over their leader’s boyish enthusiasm. ‘This shall be called Lake Champlain,’ they cried.”
Yup. I’m confident it happened just like that.
And, of course, when Champlain meets some “savages” who aren’t especially accommodating he simply gets out his arquebus — a muzzle-loaded firearm: “Sam had loaded his arquebus with four bullets, and he killed two men and wounded another with a single shot.” One shot, three downed savages. That was Sam.
I read a lot of biographies like this when I was a boy, including one of George Armstrong Custer that suggested he was a fun loving prankster and his military decisions at the Little Big Horn were nothing short of brilliant. There were a lot of “savages” in that biography, too, I suppose.
But I’m glad my mother-in-law pulled the book off her shelves in her apartment in Manhattan and loaned it to my wife. Whatever its flaws and political incorrectness, I learned more about the explorer in the hour or two I spent with the volume than I have in the two-plus decades I’ve lived in Vermont. And as Wendell Berry observed, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
–>As we celebrate the quadricentennial, I expect I will learn much more. My sense is that anyone who was willing to travel between Europe and North America as often as he did in boats that were not especially comfortable or large was both brave and ambitious. And anyone who was willing to endure Quebec City before baseboard heating and modern insulation was pretty darn hardy. Likewise, I will probably discover that Champlain had his share of character flaws and faults, too — just like the rest of us.
And, just maybe, we can spend a little time with those antique books that our mothers-in-law seem to have moldering on their library shelves.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on June 28, 2009.)