Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Exploring Wisconsin

We've just finished this book, an exciting story about a very dedicated Jesuit missionary who was at heart an explorer. Together with Louis Joliet, he was the first white man to portage between the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers and find where the Wisconsin meets the Mississippi. They sailed all the way down the Mississippi to the Arkansas River where they turned back. Their discovery, as far as white explorers go, is really under-appreciated and overshadowed by the story of Lewis and Clark.

The territory Marquette and Joliet explored was so far in the wilderness, at the time, that very few Indians they encountered had even had any first-hand experience there. Their trek was done in birchbark canoes (two of them) with nine men (M & J included) The technology was so much more primitive at the time than what Lewis and Clark had at their disposal.

At any rate, it was an amazing discovery in their time and opened the west to settlement and further exploration.

The book was written by Jim Kjelgaard (of adventure dog story fame) in 1951 and, I would imagine, is largely based on the journals of Pere Marquette. We had some good discussion of the attitudes toward the Indian people demonstrated in the book.

As the story is primarily about the adventures of the Jesuit missionary, the Indians are referred to as "savages," child-like, in need of protection, unintelligent, wasteful, violent and more. We talked about bias, opinion and perspective.

Also, as the book was written in the early 1950s, it is not sanitized as to the missionary's work and we were able to have many good discussions about how the Jesuits were attempting to convert the Indians and whether their methods were successful or not.

It is not a very PC book, but it gives a good look at the hardships under which the French lived at the time and a glimpse into the life of a Jesuit priest in the new world. Historical fiction is always more fun to read than boring PC textbooks.

Plus it's a part of our Wisconsin history!

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