Thad Carhart Interview
October 14, 2009
the author of Across the Endless River
On October 14, 2009, we had the good fortune to interview Thad Carhart, author of Across the Endless River, a novel about Sacagawea's son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. Welcome, Thad!
As an Air Force officer's son, you've lived many different places. Do you identify with Baptiste?
Many points separate me from Baptiste as a young man in the early 19th century: linguistically, culturally, racially, his was a rich and unique mix of elements. That said, the fact that my family moved constantly and lived abroad on a number of occasions, and that I learned French as a youngster, gives me an opening to his particular destiny. Having to function daily in another language than the one you are born into changes the way you look at the world forever. Language becomes a kind of music you can take up again as and when it is needed. What amazes and surprises me about Baptiste is that he had to adapt almost continually and learn multiple languages: Mandan, Hidatsa, Shoshone for tribal languages, French, English, and Spanish in St. Louis, and then German as a young man in Europe. I identify with his sense of independence, and with what I am convinced was a remarkable capacity to adapt.
You were able to see part of Duke Paul's collection of Native American artifacts. Which one impressed you most?
A pair of man's leggings from the Sioux. While they were fairly shapeless, and not particularly photogenic, when I held them I had an overwhelming sense of the presence of the person who wore them on the Great Plains almost two hundred years ago. The texture of the tassels on the side was pliable and soft, the smell of wood smoke was still present, the buckskin's color was finely darkened by human sweat and patterns of wear. It was a powerful moment I'll never forget, and it made real to me the passage of an entire people whose vestiges remain in such collections.
What question would you ask Baptiste if you could travel back in time?
"How much of the change to the tribal way of life on the frontier did you see coming before you left for Europe in 1823?" We too readily assume, I think, that contemporaries were living in a kind of "black box" as regards the future, as if anything at all might happen. Instead, it seems far more likely to me that someone who had seen as much as Baptiste had by age eighteen would have sensed the way the next years and decades would play out. The tribes of the Missouri and upper Mississippi River basins had already been decimated by successive waves of disease - typhus, smallpox, the common cold - against which they were defenseless. Many tribes were already weakened by population loss and widespread alcohol use. Against this backdrop, what would he have imagined the future of his mother's world to be?
Review of Across the Endless River
See listing for Across the Endless River at Powell's Books
See listing for Across the Endless River at Amazon.com
See Thad Carhart's article "Imagining the Past in Paris"
See Thad Carhart's article "Sacagawea: The Seduction of Mythology, the Paucity of Facts"
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