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Sign-Talker: The Adventure of George Drouillard on the Lewis and Clark Expedition

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Overview

In his extraordinary body of work, James Alexander Thom does more than bring the past to life; he makes us experience history as if we were witnessing it for the first time. Thom's new novel is an enthralling adventure with fascinating real-life characters—and a heart-grabbing narrative that casts a vivid light on a momentous chapter in American history.

Flint and Steel begins just after the Louisiana Purchase. Thomas Jefferson has sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to ...

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Overview

In his extraordinary body of work, James Alexander Thom does more than bring the past to life; he makes us experience history as if we were witnessing it for the first time. Thom's new novel is an enthralling adventure with fascinating real-life characters—and a heart-grabbing narrative that casts a vivid light on a momentous chapter in American history.

Flint and Steel begins just after the Louisiana Purchase. Thomas Jefferson has sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to penetrate the newly acquired territory, journey up the Missouri River, cross the Rocky Mountains, and reach the glimmering sea in the far West. To survive, the two captains need an extraordinary hunter who will be able to provide the expedition with fresh game, and a sign-talker to communicate with the native tribes. They choose George Drouillard. It is Drouillard, an actual historical figure, who becomes our eyes and ears on this unforgettable odyssey.

Drouillard, a metis raised among the Shawnee, cannot fathom what drives the two men. Nor can he help but admire their ingenuity and courage as they tackle the journey into the unknown. Along the way, he watches as they shrewdly shape and discipline their force, adding French-Canadian rivermen—to guide the expedition up the Missouri—and an Indian woman, Sacagawea, who will play a crucial role in negotiations with the Western tribes.

After plunging into an unforgiving land and near madness, the triumphant achievement of two captains will be eclipsed by an overwhelming tragedy that will touch not only Meriwether Lewis and the frontier tribes but George Drouillard himself. A magnificent tale told with intelligence and insight, Flint and Steel is full of song and suffering, humor and pathos. James Alexander Thom has created the rarest reading experience: one that entertains us even as it shows us a new vision of our nation, our past, and ourselves.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"James Alexander Thom . . . make[s] the story of North America come alive. He puts flesh and blood on forgotten names, and he breathes life into the stale past. He is probably the most important author of American historic novels writing today because he helps to interpret the distant past for the mind and interest of the modern reader."
—JACK WEATHERFORD
   Author of Indian Givers
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An illiterate half-breed employed as translator and hunter on the Lewis and Clark Expedition serves as the conduit for Thom's (The Red Heart) learned but over-meticulous fictional account of the celebrated trek. Wryly observing the bumbling efforts of arrogant whites to win the trust and loyalty of bellicose Indians, George Drouillard follows along as captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and 30-odd white explorers journey up the Missouri River, across the Rockies, to the Pacific shore and back again, all the while plagued by mutiny, desertion, navigational confusion, weather disasters, bitter hardship and fear of Indian attacks. Drouillard hunts meat for the party and keeps himself aloof from its internal politics, constantly commenting to himself on the crass vulgarity of the whites, whom he sees as ignorant, avaricious and materialistic; Indians, in contrast, possess noble spirituality and natural sensitivity. He is a formidable character, and despite his unlikely dedication to the abolitionist struggle, he emerges as genuine and credible. Thom's portraits of Lewis, Clark, the much celebrated Sacagawea and other principal characters are also nicely fleshed out, and often at odds with more popular interpretations. Unfortunately, the book is more an imaginative dramatization of the expedition than anything like historical fiction: it lacks real plot, character development and suspense. Thom's research, mechanics and execution are impeccable in almost every regard, but likely only those seriously interested in an accurate and highly detailed fictionalization of the historical event and period will make it through this dense and slow-moving account. Map. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Thom (Follow the River; From Sea to Shining Sea) has written another historical saga of early America, here recounting the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804 06). Events are seen through the eyes of George Drouillard, the half-Shawnee, half-French hunter hired by Lewis and Clark as the first interpreter for their expedition, at least a year before they met Sacajawea. Thom succeeds in his mission to educate readers about the beliefs and culture of Native Americans, and his knack for absorbing descriptions reveals a breathtaking virgin American landscape so pristine, so full of wildlife, flora, and beauty, that one is appalled by the Americans behavior. They defile rivers, rape the landscape, use and insult Native Americans, and massacre wildlife as they trudge their way to the Pacific and back. Yet, surprisingly, Thom s fans will likely be disappointed by his latest effort: the story of the expedition itself, as ploddingly described here, is simply not a gripping subject. Thom devotees and early American history buffs may create demand for this often-dull read, but otherwise it is lukewarmly recommended. Barbara L., Roberts, Maricopa Cty. Lib. Dist., Phoenix Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
An illiterate half-breed employed as translator and hunter on the Lewis and Clark Expedition serves as the conduit for Thom's (The Red Heart) learned but over-meticulous fictional account of the celebrated trek. Wryly observing the bumbling efforts of arrogant whites to win the trust and loyalty of bellicose Indians, George Drouillard follows along as captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and 30-odd white explorers journey up the Missouri River, across the Rockies, to the Pacific shore and back again, all the while plagued by mutiny, desertion, navigational confusion, weather disasters, bitter hardship and fear of Indian attacks. Drouillard hunts meat for the party and keeps himself aloof from its internal politics, constantly commenting to himself on the crass vulgarity of the whites, whom he sees as ignorant, avaricious and materialistic; Indians, in contrast, possess noble spirituality and natural sensitivity. He is a formidable character, and despite his unlikely dedication to the abolitionist struggle, he emerges as genuine and credible. Thom's portraits of Lewis, Clark, the much celebrated Sacagawea and other principal characters are also nicely fleshed out, and often at odds with more popular interpretations. Unfortunately, the book is more an imaginative dramatization of the expedition than anything like historical fiction: it lacks real plot, character development and suspense. Thom's research, mechanics and execution are impeccable in almost every regard, but likely only those seriously interested in an accurate and highly detailed fictionalization of the historical event and period will make it through this dense and slow-moving account. Map. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Kirkus Reviews
Thom retells the Lewis and Clark journey, which he first visited in From Sea to Shining Sea (1984), from the point of view of Drouillard, a half-breed Native American. Adapting the less romantic view of contemporary historians, Thom, again trying to evoke history from a Native American perspective, sees that famed expedition as a harbinger for the subjugation and annihilation of the Indians, who, though threatened by European diseases, weapons and whiskey, would soon find betrayal, slaughter, cultural destruction and slow starvation in the white man's bag of gifts. In Drouillard (his father was French, his mother a Shawnee), Thom has a reluctant, stranger-in-a-strange-land hero. Drouillard is a superb hunter with an almost psychic understanding of living things, as well as an illiterate linguist who can speak English, French, Spanish, and variations on his Shawnee dialect. Unmarried, shunned by whites and unattached to any tribe, Drouillard is at first reluctant to join the expedition, having suspected correctly that William Clark's brother, George Rogers Clark, massacred his tribal relatives. He decides that the money he might make could be of use to his mother, though, and becomes the odd man in among the Corps of Discovery, reacting with mostly silent contempt at the foul odors, hypocrisy, dishonesty, and management blunders of the group's leaders, especially Lewis, whose depressive rages Drouillard senses as an almost demonic possession. In numerous meetings with Indians, Drouillard envisions the seeds of conflicts to come, but also finds much to respect on both sides—until he becomes an unwilling accomplice as the explorers lie, cheat, and steal their way to the Pacificandback. Uneven, heavy with ironic culture clashes, and as slowly paced as the expedition itself. Still, the narrative ripples with a luminous fascination for nature, both human and spiritual, as it rains down so much sorrow and wonder.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345465566
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/4/2003
  • Edition description: First Trade Paperback Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 368,393
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Meet the Author

James Alexander Thom was formerly a U.S. Marine, a newspaper and magazine editor, and a member of the faculty at the Indiana University Journalism School. He is the author of Follow the River, Long Knife, From Sea to Shining Sea, Panther in the Sky (for which he won the prestigious Western Writers of America Spur Award for best historical novel), The Children of First Man, and The Red Heart. He lives in the Indiana hill country near Bloomington with his wife, Dark Rain of the Shawnee Nation, United Remnant Band. Dark Rain is a director of the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Planning Council.

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Read an Excerpt

Fort Massac, Lower Ohio Valley
November 11, 1803

An eagle soared westward above the river bluff against a gray overcast, as if leading the lean hunter toward the fort, though the fort was where he was going anyway. He would see the big mysterious boat moored below the fort, he thought. It should be there by now.

Eagles often seemed to lead the hunter, even though his per-
sonal Shawnee name was Nah S'gawateah Kindiwa, meaning Without Eagle Feathers. The name by which he was known was George Pierre Drouillard.

The tawny skin of his face was taut over jutting bone, his mouth wide, thin-lipped. His hazel eyes were paler than his skin, which gave a strange brightness to his gaze that sometimes made people uneasy, as he knew it did. It was not good for a métis—a half-breed—to make white people uneasy, so hunting and trapping alone was suitable work for him, away from the towns.

Drouillard rode a bay horse, and led an army mule that carried the boneless venison of three deer and the meat and fat of a bear, all bundled neatly in their own hides and hung on a packsaddle. He watched the silhouette of the eagle as he rode. Already he smelled wood smoke from the fort: hickory, oak. And he smelled latrine.

He sent a thought up: Without Eagle Feathers follows you, kindiwa. There was a reason why that was his name, and it was a sad and sorry reason, no fault of his. Still, eagles often led him.

Led by Eagles, that would have been a better name. If only there remained a shaman to do a new name ceremony for him, that could be his personal name. One could change to a truer name, with shaman help.

Then another name came into his memory and made him laugh. Once when he was drunk a whiteman had asked him his Indian name and he said, "Followed by Buzzards." The fool had believed him, though that would be a true name for him too, appropriate for a hunter. He was a good hunter. Not just a tracker and stalker and sharpshooter. In boyhood he had learned the voices and sounds of all the animals and birds, and could call and decoy them in their own languages. He was such a good hunter that Captain Bissell, commander of Fort Massac, employed him to bring game to the fort to feed its soldiers. He was paid for the meat by the hundredweight. He took his pay in gunpowder, lead, soap, and the printed paper that the américains called money. The army provided the pack mule. Followed by Buzzards. He rode along laughing. It was a laugh just slightly bitter, the taste of much Shawnee people's laughter these days.

He rode the curving path through leafless woods, and the river below was green and wide. The woods opened ahead onto a stump-studded clearing, in which the fort stood massive on its earthworks, log and stone. Originally it had been a French fort, now garrisoned by soldiers of the United States, who had rebuilt it from ruins. From its promontory on the north bank of the Ohio, one commanded a view of some thirty miles of the river, from the mouth of the Tennessee almost down to the Mississippi. It was almost like seeing as an eagle sees. There was a spirit in the place that was much older than the age of the fort. Drouillard knew this would have been a lookout place of the Ancients, those who had built the great, silent hill-mounds everywhere along these rivers, then had died or gone away before whitemen came.

But of course the eagle could look down with scorn even at this high, proud place, and see farther horizons.

Out of the woods now, he looked down to see if the big mystery boat was moored below the bluff, and it was.

He had seen it yesterday while hunting opposite the mouth of the Cumberland, had stood watching it pass below with four soldiers rowing and one on the tiller and another on the bow. It was a long, black-hulled galley keelboat with a sail mast forward and a cabin in the stern. This was not quite a real ship, he thought, such as the seagoing ships he had seen down at New Orleans, but it was much more like a ship than the usual flatboats and barges that brought whitemen and their goods down the Ohio to the Mississippi. Days before he had seen it, he heard the rumors and the mysteries about it. People all down the Ohio were talking about the coming of this boat. Rumors moved much faster than boats, and made mysteries that had to be figured out.

A rumor said this boat had been sent by the President of the United States, and that its commander was a friend of President Jefferson. Another rumor said that President Jefferson was going to take control of the Mississippi country from the Spaniards. Another rumor, or maybe a part of the same one, was that the américains coming on this boat intended to go all the way west to the ocean on the far side, and make a trading route all the way to the farthest place, called China.

To a solitary woodsman like Drouillard, such rumors were merely curiosities, and he could see no way they would be important to him, any more than the rumors three years ago when all the whitemen had expected strange happenings just because their calendar turned to 1800 and a new century. Whitemen presumed that their ways of counting time had power.

But there were two things about these rumors that made his instincts tingle, like the sound of a growl in the underbrush:

One of the soldier officers on this boat was said to be called Clark, a war name from his childhood memory: memories of shooting, houses burning, women dragging their children into the woods to hide from the Town-Burner soldiers whose leader was the dreaded Clark. The name was still a curse in the house of Drouillard's uncle, Louis Lorimier, for Clark had destroyed Lorimier's great trading post in Ohio and ruined him. Was this officer the same Clark, now coming again?

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