Thursday, March 04, 2010

Review: The Fairest Portion of the Globe by Frances Hunter

Forcing his head up into the deluge, Clark peeled back an eyelid and squinted. The heavens had paled to a deathly green, with clouds rolling and tumbling, black as midnight with fire boiling inside. A great sheet of white lightening ripped the sky so violently that Clark felt it vibrate through his hair to his heart and down into his bare feet, warm against he mud. [pg 11]


The Fairest Portion of the Globe
by Frances Hunter
Blind Rabbit Press, February 2010
Fiction (Historical); 421 pgs

A recent death in the family motivated me to pull out the family tree my husband and I began working on years ago. It had been a year or two since I last looked it over or given it a much needed update. I found myself reading through the names, going back through our families' histories. One branch of my family, I can trace back to Virginia (and Germany before that) during the late 1700's, which is the time period of Frances Hunter's novel, The Fairest Portion of the Globe. As I read the novel, I could not help but imagine what the life of my ancestors must have been like in early America.

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in history. When I was in school, I had a particular fondness for U.S. history. To this day, I still enjoy visiting historical landmarks whenever I travel. In recent years, my interest in history has taken a more broad form. I am drawn to the history and cultures of other countries, sometimes more so than my own. And yet, my interest in U.S. history has narrowed some. I find myself interested more in 20th century history. It shows in my fiction reading. I am not sure why that is exactly. Perhaps something to explore at greater length another time . . .

It's been years since I last read a book set in early American history. When the authors approached me to review The Fairest Portion of the Globe, I felt a spark of excitement that took me back to those days when I couldn't get enough of early U.S. history.

Frances Hunter is a writing team of two sisters, Liz and Mary Clare. The Fairest Portion of the Globe is their second novel, sort of a prequel to their first book, To the Ends of the Earth: The Last Journey of Lewis and Clark, but readers do not have to read one to enjoy the other.

The authors take great pains to create as accurate a history as possible and yet also make the history come to life for the reader. It is a novel, after all. There was nothing textbook about it. It was an engaging and suspenseful book to read. I originally had written my own summary of the novel to include with my review, but it ended up being a bit too long. I think the authors sum it up best on their website:

La Louisiane–a land of riches beyond imagining. Whoever controls the vast domain along the Mississippi River will decide the fate of the North American continent. When young French diplomat Citizen Genet arrives in America, he’s determined to wrest Louisiana away from Spain and win it back for France—even if it means global war.

Caught up this astonishing scheme are George Rogers Clark, the washed-up hero of the Revolution and unlikely commander of Genet’s renegade force; his beautiful sister Fanny, who risks her own sanity to save her brother’s soul; General “Mad Anthony” Wayne, who never imagined he’d find the country’s deadliest enemy inside his own army; and two young soldiers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who dream of claiming the Western territory in the name of the United States—only to become the pawns of those who seek to destroy it.

From the frontier forts of Ohio to the elegant halls of Philadelphia, the virgin forests of Kentucky to the mansions of Natchez, Frances Hunter has written a page-turning tale of ambition, intrigue, and the birth of a legendary American friendship—in a time when America was fighting to survive.

There are several story threads that run through the novel, and quite a few characters to follow, but I was never lost or confused as to what was going on. In fact, I was quite intrigued by each of the characters' stories. My favorite, however, involved George and William's sister Fanny. Fanny is married to Doctor Jim O'Fallen, George's good friend and right hand man. He is the one who is able to keep George sober and has a gift for dealing with the political aspects of putting together an army. Jim is well liked and respected by the Clark family. Knowing how much her brother relies on Jim, Fanny is afraid to tell anyone about the other side of her husband, his darker, more violent side. I ached for Fanny. She was such a good-hearted young woman and yet she was trapped, feeling helpless and alone. Jim is one of those characters I was truly hoping would get what he deserved in the end the more I read about him.

Alex Michaux, a botanist from France whose wife died in child birth, was another character who stole my heart. He is completely out of his element, tasked by Citizen Genet, the French diplomat, with helping General George Rogers Clark put together an army to take against France. He merely wants to explore and study the flora and fauna of the New World, going further west.

For me, one of the most intriguing characters in the novel is General James Wilkinson, a proud man who is trusted and respected by the Clark brothers. He has his secrets, however, and like Lewis, I never quite trusted him, unsure of exactly what he was up to.

As a mystery reader who often figures out the whodunit pretty quickly, there were quite a few surprising twists in this novel. I never knew what would happen next. Well, except for the ultimate outcome. The novel is based on actual historical events after all. Even so, I learned quite a bit I hadn't known before and even spent some time doing my own research.

The novel did get off to a slow start. I am not sure that could be helped, given the need to set the story up. Once William Clark was introduced, the story picked up, and it really took off for me when Meriwether Lewis appeared on the scene. I really liked both Clark and Lewis, and enjoyed watching the friendship bloom between them. Some of my favorite types of stories are origin stories, and The Fairest Portion of the Globe related the origin of the two great explorers' friendship and eventual partnership.

Lewis and Clark are legends in American history. They've always seemed a bit larger than life as a result. The authors offer a more personal glimpse into their lives, as well as into the Clark family, reminding me that they were real people with real fears and failings.

Meriwether Lewis is a bit of a wild card, an ensign in the army and newly assigned to William Clark. In his first introduction to his commanding officer, Lewis nearly shoots Clark off his horse (one of my favorite scenes). I confess that I developed a little crush on Lewis. He is sharp and not much gets by him. He seems like the kind of person who would make a good friend, trustworthy and honorable even if a little hotheaded. William Clark, on the other hand, is more levelheaded, although no slouch either. He is a strong leader and really cares about the men under him. He is also very loyal to his family.

I felt so bad for George Rogers Clark, William Clark's brother. He'd done much for his country, only to be left high and dry in the end. He put so much of himself into his new mission, including sobering up. Like his brother and the rest of his family, I wanted him to have some of that old glory. Yet I could also see how this new situation could end up like it did before. What if the French didn't follow through with money and back up? It all seemed a little too shaky from my perspective, especially given what I knew about Citizen Genet from the beginning chapter.

It was interesting seeing America through the eyes of the characters, discovering what life must have been like in 1794, the year the novel is set. The beauty of the land, all that open space, the hardships the people endured, and the life a soldier led (The very thought of picking maggots out of my food turns my stomach).

There was one passage in particular that had me running to my computer to do a little research. Lewis, at one point in the novel, is reading a book and, from the description, I knew it had to be a real book. While we can't really know if Lewis ever read that particular book, just from the descriptions of his character--his curiosity and his love for learning--I imagine that he very likely would have enjoyed reading. And when books are scarce and there's a lot of downtime, what's a soldier more likely to read than a popular novel? I finally broke down and e-mailed the authors asking for the title of the book since my own rudimentary search turned up nothing. That little excursion has piqued my interest in that particular book now as well.

I confess that I nearly turned down the opportunity to read The Fairest Portion of the Globe. I was a little intimidated by the fact that the novel was about such prominent historical figures--silly I know. And I also worried that reading the novel would feel too much like homework. Yet, there was that spark I talked about earlier, of revisiting a time in history that I once loved and had such a curiosity about. I took a chance and am so glad I did.

Frances Hunter's The Fairest Portion of the Globe was not only informative, it was also entertaining. I got misty-eyed, I chuckled, and I even held my breath (oh my gosh, that ending!)--and that's even knowing a bit about how history would play out.

Rating: * (Very Good)

You can learn more about the authors and their books on the authors' website, which includes the trailer for The Fairest Portion of the Globe.

If you haven't already, be sure and check out the authors' guest post.

And don't forget to enter for a chance to win a copy of
The Fairest Portion of the Globe (open to U.S. residents only, I'm afraid) here.


© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

16 comments:

  1. Such a thorough review!

    I was never a fan of history in high school; probably because I don't think I had a teacher who was passionate about the subject.

    I would like to do focus on family geneology sometime and see how far back I can trace my ancestors. Right now I only know as far back as my great grandparents on either side - and they both "Texan" :)

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  2. What a wonderful review! I have also only recently gotten into American history again, but I'm fascinated by all the levels and layers of it- great take on this book!

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  3. Like you, I tend to be more interested in more recent history, but the exploration of North America has always interested me (as I've moved from North to South and East to West myself). This book's going on the wishlist - thanks (as always) for the great review, Wendy!

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  4. Such an interesting part of history; I think I'll have to add this to the ever expanding tbr list.

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  5. What a great review! I studied History in college although my area of concentration was U.S History from 1914 to present. I'm quite sure I would enjoy this book since I am interested in early U.S History as well!

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  6. Great review, Wendy! I've read one book about Lewis and Clark and one about George Rogers Clark. Both were really good. I'll check this one out too now that I know about it!

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  7. I have got to read this - the bit about "La Louisianne" caught me right away, and I recentl realized that just about the only history I ever get is from historical fiction. Thanks for the head's up about it, Wendy!

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  8. Sounds good. Thankyou so much for you comment about Smokey.

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  9. Great review. This sounds like a fantastic book.

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  10. This was a very interesting review, Wendy. I'm always looking forward to read your reviews because you have interesting thing to say. I have want to do some family geneology/tree to find how far back our families are. Just never had the time. I'm the child of the 70's but have grown up around 80's time in Louisiana.

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  11. Oh yeah..psst. I response to your comments at my blog about one of the book cover LOL!

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  12. Your review has piqued my interest in this book. Last year, I went through a period where all I read was romances set between 1795-1880. I read so many that I thought I would never want to read another book set in that era, but I may pick this one up.

    I've flirted off and on with the idea of doing a family tree. The reality is, I don't like most of my relatives enough to talk to them and get the information!

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  13. Molly - My review did run a little long. LOL You should have seen the first version with my summary.

    I was fortunate to have very passionate history teachers (most of them anyway) in school. But I think a lot of my love of history comes from my dad.

    It's been so much fun researching the family history. Unfortunately, I'm stumped on a few of the branches.

    Aarti - Thank you! It was nice to revisit an old love of mine. I am so glad I took a chance on this book.

    Florinda - You have personal experience in exploration! :-) It really was an interesting time in our country's history.

    Lisa - Haha! My TBR has already tipped over, I'm afraid. I learned quite a bit from this book, I admit.

    Kathleen - Thanks! I think you would like this one then!

    Myckyee (Donna) - Thank you. Do you remember the titles of the books you read about Lewis and Clark and George Rogers Clark? I may want to check them out. :-)

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  14. Clea - Haha! You sound like me. Much of the history I am exposed to these days is through fiction too.

    Zetor - It's always so hard when we lose a loved one, especially our four legged friends. I'm so sorry for your loss.

    Kristen - Thank you! I really enjoyed it and hope others will too.

    Julia - Thank you so much, Julia! You always know how to make me feel good. :-)

    I hope someday you will have time to research your family tree. It can be quite enlightening, some of the things you find. :-)

    Dani - Over-saturation of one type of book or time period does that to me too. I'd be interested in your thoughts if you do read this one, Dani.

    I've run into a few walls with my family in regards to certain branches of the family tree. Maybe you can look back through census records and birth and death records--if ever you have the time and inclination. It can be a lot of work.

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  15. Beautiful review! I often read historical fiction and find that for me, it's the most interesting way for me to learn about a particular time and place. Like you, I tend to gravitate towards other cultures and leave American history on the back burner. This book sounds like something that could entice me to change my mind about that though, so I will be trying to scout out my own copy. Thanks for the great review. I probably wouldn't have come across this book had I not seen it.

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  16. Zibilee - Thank you! I agree; I think historical fiction really brings to life history. I know sometimes I have to be careful because historical fiction is fiction, but often it's in that context that I become even more interested in learning the facts behind the story, you know?

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