Savage Lands

by Clare Clark

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Savage Lands by Clare Clark Set in early eighteenth-century French Louisiana, Savage Lands is about the men and women who struggled to stay alive in the small, swampy and desperate colony that would one day become the city of Mobile, Alabama. Bookish, orphaned Elisabeth Savaret is one of twenty-three girls sent to the mostly male colony in 1704 to become wives. She does not expect to fall wildly, recklessly in love with her husband. Twelve-year-old Auguste is left in an Ouma Indian village with instructions to learn "the savages' local tongue so that he might act as interpreter for the French who should pass this way" and "to familiarize himself with the habits and associations of the tribe, their affiliations and their enmities, and report to the garrison accordingly." He does not expect to grow almost to adulthood there.

One character remarks "that in Louisiana it was not just houses and ships that rotted, but men." Bribery and corruption, exploitation of the native tribes and bad behavior of all kinds are rife. Descriptions of the landscape become metaphors for illness: The Mississippi River "seeped into the swamps and forests where its dark quiescence gave the illusion of solid earth. Everywhere a frenzy of vegetation erupted from its skin, propelled by a fierce and vulgar prodigiousness." In the swamps around the town, "there rose from the water great dark trees with leprotic bark that rotted in hanks from their trunks." But to paint Louisiana as nothing but a sink of vice (or France as a font of virtues) would be too simple, and nothing about this lush but subtle, passionate but intellectual novel is simple.

Fifteen years later when another young bride-to-be steps off a ship and is appalled by Mobile's failure to resemble paradise, harrowing experiences have changed both Elisabeth and Auguste. But Savage Lands is a novel of hope, not despair. All three characters, and Elisabeth in particular, are embarking on an education in the practice and meaning of love. (2010; 406 pages, including an Author's Note discussing the history and Acknowledgments discussing the sources behind the novel)

More about Savage Lands at Powell's Books or

Interview with author Clare Clark

Other novels set in early Louisiana:

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (1976), about a young indigo planter in eighteenth-century Louisiana who becomes a vampire. More info

People of the Owl by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear (2003), , about a young man in prehistoric Louisiana who inherits his dead brother's wives; #11 in the First North Americans series. More info

Nonfiction about colonial Louisiana:

Old Mobile: Fort Louis de la Louisiane, 1702-1711 by Jay Higginbotham (1991). More info

Indians, Settlers and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783 by Daniel H. Usner, Jr. (1992). More info

Fleur de Lys and Calumet by Andre Penicault, translated and edited by Richebourg G. McWilliams (1988 Library of Alabama edition), the journal of a carpenter in French colonial Louisiana. More info


The Old Mobile Site (Fort Louis de la Louisiane) at Wikipedia

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