Sign-Talker: The Adventure of George Drouillard on the Lewis and Clark Expeditionby James Alexander Thom
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.
Sign-Talker 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 two captains celebrate a triumphant achievement. But the glory will soon 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, Sign-Talker 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.
From the Paperback edition.
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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?
From the Hardcover edition.
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.
From the Paperback edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This is such a fine book, I can't say enough about it. I have read many non-fiction books on the L&C subject, and I was sceptical at first about this novel, but it proved to be a very engrossing and refreshing read. Thom has interwoven fact and fiction in such a skillfull manner: the fact being the Expedition (with journal quotes inserted); the fiction being the character development George Drouillard and others. The fact the Thom's wife is Shawnee has certainly helped in his development of Drouillard, which genuinely represents a Native American perspective. It is too bad that Sacagawea's contribution has been so exaggerated, and Drouillard's has been largely unnoticed in the media and text books. This book has opened my eyes to the key roll that Drouillard had in history. As Thom contends: without him, the Expedition would have likely failed. George Drouillard was truly an unsung hero, and I dedicate an eagle feather to his spirit.
I've read many Louis & Clark books and this was one of the most interesting.
The author researches the subject in detail and builds the story and characters with great attention to detail, respect, and antipathy. A;; his novels are well worth the read and should become classics like his epic novel 'From Sea to Shining Sea'
This was a really good point of view of this great adventure. It bought to light a side of Lesis and Clark I had never known. Most books of the adventure I had a hard time with, but this was good easy reading.
This is a good read, but I would not rank it as Thom's best. I like all his material -- however, some more than others. I did learn some interesting information and speculation. Definitely worth the time.
For any Lewis & Clark person this book is a must read. I did not want to put the book down, it holds your attention.
I enjoyed the book and feel, after reading a couple of other books on the Discovery Journey. James Alexander Thom, took a different point of view, telling the truth on how the courage and knowledge of George P Drouillard, helped the expedition succeed.
Another excellent book from Thom. The opposite viewpoint provided from the Indian perspective is a perfect balance to his other novel, From Sea to Shining Sea. This approach is somewhat similar to Panther in the Sky and Long Knives.
Exceptionally well written historical novel on George Drouillard's often understated role in the Lewis & Clark expedition. Historically very accurate interlaced with enough 'fill in' fiction to make it highly readable and difficult to put down. First real view of the opening of the west through 'Indian eyes.' One of the best of the period historical novels to date and I have read a lot of them.