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Synopses & Reviews
In this sweeping, enthralling biography, acclaimed historian David Hackett Fischer brings to life the remarkable Samuel de Champlain — soldier, spy, master mariner, explorer, cartographer, artist, and Father of New France.
Born on France's Atlantic coast, Champlain grew to manhood in a country riven by religious warfare. The historical record is unclear on whether Champlain was baptized Protestant or Catholic, but he fought in France's religious wars for the man who would become Henri IV, one of France's greatest kings, and like Henri, he was religiously tolerant in an age of murderous sectarianism. Champlain was also a brilliant navigator. He went to sea as a boy and over time acquired the skills that allowed him to make twenty-seven Atlantic crossings without losing a ship.
But we remember Champlain mainly as a great explorer. On foot and by ship and canoe, he traveled through what are now six Canadian provinces and five American states. Over more than thirty years he founded, colonized, and administered French settlements in North America. Sailing frequently between France and Canada, he maneuvered through court intrigue in Paris and negotiated among more than a dozen Indian nations in North America to establish New France. Champlain had early support from Henri IV and later Louis XIII, but the Queen Regent Marie de Medici and Cardinal Richelieu opposed his efforts. Despite much resistance and many defeats, Champlain, by his astonishing dedication and stamina, finally established France's New World colony. He tried constantly to maintain peace among Indian nations that were sometimes at war with one another, but when he had to, he took up arms and forcefully imposed a new balance of power, proving himself a formidable strategist and warrior.
Throughout his three decades in North America, Champlain remained committed to a remarkable vision, a Grand Design for France's colony. He encouraged intermarriage among the French colonists and the natives, and he insisted on tolerance for Protestants. He was a visionary leader, especially when compared to his English and Spanish contemporaries — a man who dreamed of humanity and peace in a world of cruelty and violence.
This superb biography, the first in decades, is as dramatic and exciting as the life it portrays. Deeply researched, it is illustrated throughout with many contemporary images and maps, including several drawn by Champlain himself.
"Fischer, Pulitzer Prize — winner for Washington's Crossing, has produced the definitive biography of Samuel de Champlain (1567 — 1635): spy, explorer, courtier, soldier, sailor, ethnologist, mapmaker, and founder and governor of New France (today's Quebec), which he founded in 1608. This extraordinary and flawed individual was a man of war who dreamed of establishing a peaceful nation in the New World. Fischer once again displays a staggering and wide research, lightly worn, including no fewer than 16 fascinating appendixes covering everything from the 'Indian Nations in Champlain's World, 1603 — 35' to Champlain's preferred firearm. The bibliography is equally impressive, and the same should be said of Fischer's literary skills and approach. He does not have 'a thesis, or a theory, or an ideology,' but instead answers questions ('Who was this man? What did he do? Why should we care?') to weave together his epic story. With 2008 the 400th anniversary of the foundation of New France, the time is ripe for this outstanding work. 16 pages of color photos; b&w photos, maps." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Samuel de Champlain is little known to most Americans, except as the namesake of a frigid lake. Generally speaking, we're biased against the French and bored by Canada. In school books, France's role in the making of our nation doesn't extend much beyond Lafayette, the French-and-Indian War and the Louisiana Purchase. So it may surprise American readers that Champlain not only founded... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Quebec City but reached Plymouth Harbor 15 years before the Pilgrims. He explored Cape Cod and Maine and probed upstate New York as far inland as Syracuse. Millions of Americans descend from early settlers who followed Champlain to New France, a domain that in his day extended from Canada to Philadelphia. Champlain also stands out for the stunning breadth and drama of his career. This is a man who never learned to swim, yet shot American rapids in bark canoes and crossed the Atlantic 27 times without losing a ship. He sought peace with Indians but marched on the Mohawk, defeating them in battle while plucking an arrow from his neck. He was also a talented spy, mapmaker, artist, naturalist and writer — as well as a gourmand who founded the first gastronomic society in America, the Ordre de Bon Temps. In short, it's hard to imagine a more appealing biographical subject than this French action-figure with high ideals and a taste for moose meat and beaver tail. It's also hard to conjure a historian better suited to reintroducing Champlain to U.S. readers than David Hackett Fischer, the acclaimed author of several works on colonial America and trans-Atlantic history (his last, "Washington's Crossing," won a Pulitzer Prize). In his exhaustively researched new book, "Champlain's Dream," Fischer depicts the French explorer as the rare European who genuinely believed in coexisting peacefully with natives, through trade alliances, cultural tolerance and intermarriage. This distinguished Champlain from his Spanish contemporaries, who routinely enslaved and slaughtered Indians, and from early English colonists, who generally lived apart from natives and drove them from their land. To a remarkable degree, Champlain lived up to his ideals and realized the dream of colonizing New France without brute conquest. This contributes, however, to a disappointing biography. Fischer is so admiring of his subject that he presents Champlain as more monument than man. The Frenchman appears almost perfect, and perfectly dull. Fischer's skills as a narrative historian also seem to have deserted him. In earlier books, Fischer focused tightly on dramatic events such as Paul Revere's ride and Washington's crossing of the Delaware. Here, he works in wide-angle, panning across continents and decades. This approach cries out for ruthless editing, which he fails to provide. "Champlain's Dream" is dense with extraneous characters and detail, and very slow going for anyone but a devoted student of the subject (for whom Fischer tacks on 200 pages of appendices and notes). Fischer's failure to give pace to his story or life to his protagonist is a disservice not only to the reader but to Champlain, whose own writing is rich with adventure and keen observation. Fischer sometimes quotes Champlain to effect, but too often he substitutes his own cliche-ridden and generic prose: "Champlain's most important school was the sea itself." "He took pleasure in the discovery of humanity with all its infinite variety." France's royal court "teemed with life and throbbed with energy." The author even undercuts Champlain's graphic and disapproving tales of Indian torture and cannibalism: "Scholars have explained this ancient custom," Fischer writes, "as a ceremony or ritual, rooted in cultural practice and religious belief." Fischer also deals skittishly with Champlain's love life, or lack thereof. He claims that Champlain "was strongly attracted to women," but the evidence he provides suggests otherwise. Champlain's only documented attachment was to a well-connected French girl he wed when she was 12 and he at least 40. The union brought with it a large dowry and an agreement that the marriage not be consummated for two years. When that time came, the teenaged bride fled Champlain, and though she returned, "One wonders if they were living as man and wife," Fischer writes. She later fled their childless union to enter a convent. Champlain apparently kept chaste with Indians, too, despite frank approaches by native women during his three decades in America. Of this, Fischer writes only that Champlain "acted like a holy man," in contrast to other Frenchmen, adding that his abstinence enhanced his "spiritual power" among Indians. To ignore the possibility that Champlain was homosexual seems an odd bit of coyness in the 21st century. Fischer strikes another fogey note by telling us repeatedly how much Native Americans loved Champlain. (The sources for these flattering anecdotes are, inescapably, European accounts, since contact-era Indians left no written record.) He is likewise at pains to exonerate Champlain for his attacks on the Iroquois. By mowing down these troublesome Indians with his musket, he writes, Champlain sought "a middle way of peace through the carefully calibrated use of limited force." Fischer deals only briefly and belatedly with the devastating impact of European diseases on Indians. Then, in the book's conclusion, he cites the autobiography of Black Hawk, written two centuries after Champlain's death, to remind us yet again how much Indians admired "the great white general" who treated natives "as kin." The best chapters of Fischer's book come near the end, when Champlain is mostly off stage. Here, Fischer gives a fascinating survey of immigrants to French Canada and the hybrid culture they and their descendants created. Words that have vanished in France still endure in North America, while others blend the New World and Old: For instance, the dogsled command Mush! derives from the French "Marche!" Fischer also tells of the many people who bridged French and Indian culture, thanks to an early form of student-exchange program. Champlain often placed young men with Indian tribes to learn their language and ways, while he took in native children himself. A number of these truchements, or interpreters, became explorers, and the French fur traders who followed often took Indian wives. Today, the mixed-race descendants of these voyagers and French-Indian settlers may number 12 million — a statistic that speaks more eloquently to Champlain's dream than the 500 pages of hagiography that precede it. Tony Horwitz is the author, most recently, of "A Voyage Long and Strange," about early European exploration of North America. Reviewed by Tony Horwitz, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
David Hackett Fischer is University Professor and Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. The recipient of many prizes and awards for his teaching and writing, he is the author of numerous books, including Washington's Crossing, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history.
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