Monday, March 26, 2007

Ye olde book review

Nothing to do with archaeology, so skip on if you don't care. Just got done reading The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon by Robert Whitaker. Excellent book. Nonfiction. From Amazon:
As was customary for girls from elite families in 18th-century colonial Peru, Isabel Gramesón was barely a teenager when she married Jean Godin, a Frenchman visiting the territory as an assistant on a scientific expedition. Planning to bring his wife back to France, Godin trekked across South America to check in with the French colonial authorities, but was refused permission to return up the Amazon back into Spanish territory to retrieve Isabel. So they remained a continent apart for 20 years until 1769, when Isabel started making her way east. Her party ran aground on the Bobonaza River (which feeds into the Amazon), and though almost everyone perished, she managed to survive alone in the rainforest for weeks. Although science journalist Whitaker doesn't directly refer to his own modern trek following Isabel's route down the Bobonaza, his descriptions of the conditions she would have encountered convey his familiarity with the territory, often quite viscerally, ("There are giant stinging ants, ants that bite, and ants that both bite and sting"). His account of the French expedition that brought Godin to Peru and then separated him from his new wife is equally vivid, with exhilarating discoveries and petty squabbles-and richly illustrated with contemporary drawings. Though an early, long digression tracing the history of attempts to measure the size of the earth may establish the context a little too solidly, making some readers impatient, they'll certainly be hooked once the story really begins. Isabel and Jean's adventures are riveting enough on their own, and colonial South America's largely unfamiliar history adds another compelling layer to this well-crafted yarn.

It's really two books. The first half to 2/3 is about the scientific expedition to measure a degree of latitude at the equator in order to see if its length is different than one degree farther north. They did this to test the shape of the earth; that is, whether it was really slightly flattened at the poles. Isabel doesn't make much of an appearance until the second half. This part of the book provides a useful remedy to those fieldworkers prone to whine about the conditions they face while attempting to do useful work. Several in their party died, they faced really unimaginable physical difficulties, spent years doing so, and still managed to do first-rate work. This part tends to be the most detailed and would be of interest to science geeks with an interest in the history of science.

The second half is just plain riveting and eye opening. To the modern reader the time scales involved are difficult to imagine. People would customarily wait for months just to hear word from a couple of hundred miles away. "I'll just sit here in this South American hellhole for 18 months while I wait for a letter I wrote to France to get back to me." Sheesh.

Isabel's journey is. . . .something else. Like the exerpt above demonstrates, it is one of those stories of survival that ordinary people find difficult to imagine. It's so well written that it reads almost like a novel. Mosquitoes, ants and nearly everything else one can imagine constantly biting and stinging; bugs that burrow into your skin and turn into a larva there! (Hate bugs. That's why I work in the desert) It's hard to describe without giving away too much, though obviously she survives her journey.

Thus, if one can make it through the first part, it's definitely worth the read.

And now I'll compose that post about how haaaaaard it used to be to do fieldwork in Egypt without an iPod. . . . .