Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Mapmaker's Wife

The Mapmaker’s Wife is nonfiction that falls into the age old Reads Like Fiction category. Although we all have examples of fiction that we would rather nothing reads like. In the case of The Mapmaker’s Wife however I mean it as a compliment.  Author RobertWhitaker has written an un-put-down-able that is all the more fascinating because it’s a true, history.

In 1735 a party of French scientists left for South America.  Their mission in Peru is to measure "the distance of one degree of latitude at the equator". Easy-peasy, right? I’m sure somebody packed the tape measure so what are we talking about? A couple weeks? No, it is planned that this expedition will take approximately ten years. Of course  it is 1735 so the job the scientists were sent to accomplish is going to be done under the harshest of circumstances no matter what century you judge it from.

The dramas of the endeavor are hostile land, hostile animals, hostile native peoples, the hostile Spanish colonists, hostile politics, scientists’ hostility to one another, and then a little murder as the icing on the top. Enough action and history for several books but for Whitacker they are the ancillary tales of this incredible adventure. His focus is the story of the youngest member of the French team, Jean Godin and his Peruvian bride, Isabel Gramesón.

When the expedition had finally (and successfully) completely its mission Jean and Isabel had the length of the Amazon in between them. The politics of the day made it impossible for Jean to just send for his bride right away. What ended up being a twenty year separation for the couple caused by politics and Isabel’s determination to get across the continent of South America (from Peru to French New Guinea) to reunite with her husband made headlines around the world.

The Mapmaker’s Wife is exciting, real, human history. In the eyes of the World this is small history: no wars were started as a result of these events, no economies collapsed, women didn’t get the vote and no disease was cured but it is just as captivating as if every one of those things had happened as a result of Jean and Isabel’s heartbreak.  In this book Robert Whitacker has effectively used his research and writing skills to incorporate a complete picture of the times. Given this background the Godin’s story becomes all the more amazing.

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