Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review: The Mapmaker's Wife by Robert Whitaker

Subtitled A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon, this is not the sensationally lurid read that it might appear. Using the story of Isabel Grameson Godin, the gently reared South American wife of a French geographer who makes a treacherous and seemingly impossible journey through the amazon to re-join her husband on the other side of the continent as a frame, this is actually far more about the political and scientific basis for the expedition for which Jean Godin worked than it is about Isabel's journey.

Nowadays, it is hard to imagine a time when highly respected scientists argued over the shape of the earth and how to measure latitude. In the 1720's this very debate was raging though and the most respected scientists of the day chose sides, defending their positions virulently. Did the earth bulge at the poles and cinch in at the equator or did it bulge slightly at the equator and how in the world could either of these theories be tested? Enter the French Academy and the team of geographers they assembled and sent off to what is now Ecuador in an effort to map the region and prove the shape of the Earth decisively.

Whitaker details the scientific background and the political climate both in Europe and in South America as backdrop to the story of the La Condamine expedition. This takes up a large chunk of the book, as do the methods and actual events of the expedition. Aside from in the opening chapter, it is only late in the tale that Isabel and her determination to rejoin her beloved husband enter into the recounting.

The scientific expedition is quite interesting itself and incredibly impressive given their meticulous and still accurate measurements but I thought I was going to be reading a book with the bulk accounted for by the true tale of a gently bred woman's impossible trek through the dangerous amazon. When Isabel became the focus, late in the book, this is what I found but her story, perhaps from lack of historical textual evidence, only makes up a tiny portion of the narrative.

Ironically, having recently read of Teddy Roosevelt's trip down an amazon tributary (see The River of Doubt), the natural history of the area and its flora and fauna struck me as repetitive. This is not a fault of the book itself, but rather of the strange synchronicity of my reading. Unfortunately it did impact my enjoyment. I also found myself having to re-read some of the scientific sections of the story because my head clearly checked out in the midst of them. Perhaps a more scientifically-minded reader would have been riveted but I must admit to a bit of boredom and the desire for a tad bit more summarizing. Well-written and historically accurate though it was, I had hoped for a more engrossing narrative of a different sort.

1 comment:

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