The journey of the Corps of Discovery, under the leadership of
Lewis and Clark, is one of the most repeated tales in American history, especially now as its bicentennial approaches. But evidence from primary sources can only tell part of the story. The tantalizing task of filling in the blanks is undertaken by Brian Hall in his new novel, I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company.
As a novelist, Hall permits his imagination to fill in the undocumented aspects of the journey. Why were Lewis's journals so full of factual observations and yet nearly devoid of human emotion? Was Clark really the easy-going co-captain that history has assumed? And what led Lewis to take his own life three years after the Corps' return?
Hall unfolds his story in four voices: Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea and Charbonneau, the French trader who took Sacagawea as his wife. The primary voice belongs to Lewis, whose interior life Hall examines in depth. Despite his achievements, Lewis battled loneliness, depression and self-doubt. This Lewis tends toward gallows humor, especially during his inglorious return face-down in a boat after an accidental gunshot wound in his buttock.
Clark's telling is far more prosaic and pragmatic, and yet Hall's Clark has his share of internal conflicts, from his awareness of his status as a junior officer to his contradictory feelings toward his manservant/slave, York.
Hall wanders farthest from history when he speaks for Sacagawea and Charbonneau, but the result is worthwhile. Charbonneau speaks in a stew of simple English and transliterations, but the old trader emerges as a wily explorer who knows more than his captains. With Sacagawea's voice, Hall brings an aboriginal consciousness to the events. Hers is the most direct, unsullied voice, focused on her immediate perceptions and her recollection of the legends of her people.
Hall clearly has done his homework. He sees his novel as but one version of the story and he recognizes the freedom that he, as a novelist, has to tell it. Hall has created a new lens through which to view the Corps of Discovery. For a story two centuries old, that's no small achievement.