Another Favorite from 2012

The Mapmaker’s Wife by Robert Whitaker

  • 352 pages (295 pages without Notes, Acknowledgements, etc.)
  • A quick and engaging narrative with short chapters for sneaking in a little reading during the kid’s piano lesson

I nearly didn’t pick up this book from the bargain table, for I really was judging it by its cover. The front featured red tropical flowers and an old-fashioned map ghosted into the background and an effeminate font for the title, making this book look for all the world like a cheesy romance novel. “Love and murder…blah, blah, whatever,” I thought dismissively. But then the words “the true tale…” leapt out at me, and it made me curious.

The vast natural resources of South America – most particularly gold – drew the attention of all Europe. By the 18th century, Spain and, to a lesser extent, Portugal controlled the continent. Foreign travelers within their territories were regarded with extreme suspicion. Consequently, when a small group of scientists from the French Academy of Sciences proposed to survey the equatorial region, the negotiations for their travel through the Spanish-controlled areas ultimately resulted in a pair of Spanish soldiers being assigned to accompany them.

Alas for these scientists and the soldiers assigned to monitor them, their journey was not to be a straightforward mission. Internal differences split the party into two groups of travelers. Murder further complicated their work when the French team’s doctor involved himself in a lover’s quarrel between one jilted young lady and the local lothario. He was slain at a bullfight, and the French scientists were essentially run out of town by the locals, who could not understand why the Frenchmen and their peculiar equipment were there in the first place.

The title character does not actually begin her journey until more than 200 pages into the story. She was Isabel Gramesòn, the daughter of a prominent Peruvian businessman who had hosted the Frenchmen at one point in their travels. She married Jean Godin from among their group, and the two settled for a time in Riobamba, Peru. However, increasing social tension soon made a move to Europe appealing. But what was the best means for them to travel? Godin proposed to find a route along the Amazon, although some of that territory was controlled by Portugal, through whose lands he had no permission to travel. He and Isabel expected his travels to require two years. When he was waylaid, she set out after him.

She was beset by misfortune and starvation along the way, even as he struggled with political entanglements and inefficiencies. Their story’s details offer a fascinating view into the way European colonization impacted South America’s populations and resources.

Photo credit: Kong_ / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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