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The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon

The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon

3.2 5
by Robert Whitaker

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A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon

The year is 1735. A decade-long expedition to South America is launched by a team of French scientists racing to measure the circumference of the earth and to reveal the mysteries of a little-known continent to a world hungry for discovery and knowledge. From this extraordinary journey arose an unlikely love


A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon

The year is 1735. A decade-long expedition to South America is launched by a team of French scientists racing to measure the circumference of the earth and to reveal the mysteries of a little-known continent to a world hungry for discovery and knowledge. From this extraordinary journey arose an unlikely love between one scientist and a beautiful Peruvian noblewoman. Victims of a tangled web of international politics, Jean Godin and Isabel Gramesón’s destiny would ultimately unfold in the Amazon’s unforgiving jungles, and it would be Isabel’s quest to reunite with Jean after a calamitous twenty-year separation that would capture the imagination of all of eighteenth-century Europe. A remarkable testament to human endurance, female resourcefulness, and enduring love, Isabel Gramesón’s survival remains unprecedented in the annals of Amazon exploration.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In the brilliant tradition of Dava Sobel’s Longitude and Ken Alder’s The Measure of All Things, Robert Whitaker’s book places the scientific discovery of terrestrial distances within a gripping human drama, where science, society, and the human heart are intertwined.”
–Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Dreams

“A rare story, taut with intellectual controversy, romantic passion, and harrowing danger.”
Booklist (starred review)

Andrea Barrett
Whitaker makes excellent use of Jean's narrative as well as of his correspondence, the journals written by four members of the expedition and the testimonies gathered in 1770 by the Peruvian authorities. As he attempts to integrate these elements, it's hard to know where the book's center lies -- the expedition itself? Jean's difficult decades alone? Isabel's dangerous journey? -- or how to adjust to the different tones in which we hear these stories. Then again, this is a far from insurmountable problem: each element of The Mapmaker's Wife offers its own distinctive pleasures.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
As was customary for girls from elite families in 18th-century colonial Peru, Isabel Grames n 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. Agent, Jane Dystel. (Apr.) Forecast: Whitaker's book deserves a large audience, and it will benefit from an author tour, ad campaign and NPR feature campaign. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, Whitaker (Mad in America) here combines a carefully documented account of the 1736-44 French Academy of Science-sponsored expedition of Charles-Marie de La Condamine to Peru to measure "the distance of one degree of latitude at the equator" with an equally well-documented story of Isabel Godin, who survived, alone and against all odds, a perilous journey through the Upper Amazon to become reunited with her mapmaker husband, Jean Godin, the youngest member of the La Condamine expedition. Although the interweaving of these two accounts can make for slow going there is a 20-year hiatus between Isabel Godin's ordeal and the outcome of La Condamine's somewhat politically suspect expedition Whitaker's diligence (both in seeking out original sources and in personally retracing Isabel's journey) results in a valuable addition to a little-explored period in South American history. Particularly interesting are the insights Whitaker gives us into France's late entry into the contest still being waged for New World riches. The nine-page bibliography (which includes three pages of primary sources), backed up by 24 pages of notes, is well worth the price of admission. Recommended for academic libraries and large public libraries with an interest in 17th- and 18th-century scientific exploration. Robert C. Jones, Warrensburg, MO Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Whitaker merges a gripping account of scientific exploration with an amazing story of survival in the wilderness. For those who think of the Enlightenment only in terms of sedate Paris salons, this book will alter that image forever. The best minds of Europe in the 1730s knew that the Earth was not perfectly round, but the exact size and shape were in hot debate. Someone figured out that to nail down the answer certain data was needed, and that the best place to get that data was at the equator. Given the technological and political realities of the time, that meant one place: Peru. A scientific expedition was organized in Paris and sent to the New World in 1735. After 10 years of incredible hardships and setbacks, it accomplished its mission (and a host of other enlightenments along the way). As captivating as this story proved to be, another developed: a young member of the party met, fell in love with, and married an upper-class, 13-year-old Peruvian girl. Due to a tangled swirl of unfortunate events, this couple became separated for 20 years (beginning just before the birth of their only child). Finally, in 1769, Isabel Grames-n set off on a trek through the most inhospitable of jungles to rejoin her husband in French Guiana. The author's depiction of that harrowing journey is the crowning jewel of this outstanding volume.-Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The tale of the first European scientific expedition to South America and its extraordinary aftermath. Science journalist Whitaker (Mad in America, 2002, etc.) begins in 1769, when Isabel Godin took her first steps on a journey down the Amazon River to meet husband Jean, who some two decades earlier had been one of a group of French scientists seeking to determine the exact shape of the Earth by measuring a degree of longitude near the equator in what was then Peru. As with other Spanish colonies of the time, Peruvians of Spanish descent maintained an iron control over the lower classes of Indian or mixed heritage. The Frenchmen, at first welcomed as representatives of European culture, inevitably ran afoul of local prejudices, which led to one member of the expedition being murdered in broad daylight. High altitude and primitive conditions impeded the scientists' measurements, which took seven years to complete. Meanwhile, Jean Godin, a young assistant, had married Isabel Grames-n, the daughter of a prominent local family. When the expedition leaders returned to Europe, Godin stayed behind. After falling into financial difficulties, he traveled to French Guiana, where for 20 years he called upon the king (or anyone else who would listen) to bail him out. Meanwhile, Isabel stayed with her family, raising a daughter who died without ever seeing her father. When Godin sent for his wife at last, she set off down the Amazon. The journey was a nightmare. Isabel, who probably had never spent a night outdoors, was stranded in the jungle. Two of her brothers died, as did those of her servants who had not already abandoned her. Whitaker brings forward a wealth of detail to throw both thescientific and social history into sharp relief. Indeed, he makes Isabel's ordeal so vivid that her rescue, reunion with Godin, and journey with him to France come almost as an anticlimax. A great story, deftly told. Agent: Jane Dystel/Jane Dystel Literary Management

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.78(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Mapmaker's Wife

A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon

Chapter One

A Sunday in 1769

Today the Ecuadorian village of Cajabamba, which is about 110 miles south of Quito, is a place of little note. The Andean town stretches for a mile or so along the Pan American Highway, and most of the activity in the village centers on the bus stop, where vendors are lined up selling a mix of fruit, corn-on-the-cob, soup, and roasted meats. Tourists passing this way, if armed with a particularly good guidebook, might pause just long enough to scan a hillside on the north side of town, searching for a scar left by the great earthquake of 1797, which sent a flow of mud down upon the adobe homes below and killed thousands. At that time, this was a very different place. More than 16,000 people lived here, and Riobamba-as it was then called-was one of the most graceful cities in colonial Peru, home to musicians, artists, and wealthy landowners. But after the earthquake, the survivors picked up and rebuilt their town thirteen miles to the northeast, and old Riobamba gradually faded from memory. All that physically remains of the prosperous colonial city are a few ruins on the west side of Cajabamba.

However, there is one other faint echo of the past that can be found in Cajabamba. From the center of town, next to where the buses idle and the vendors linger, one can look up a long street heading east up a hill and spot a small statue. It sits in front of a school, a gold-painted bust of a rather stern-looking woman. The monument is in disrepair-the stone base is marred by graffiti, the gold paint is chipped and flaked, and the inscription is not quite readable-and few people in Cajabamba can say who the lady looking out over their town is or why she might have deserved a statue. However, in the late eighteenth century, the story of Isabel Godin became so well known that it left all of Europe spellbound. The statue was erected at the site of her colonial home, and thus it would have been from here, on the morning of October 1, 1769, that she began her most remarkable journey. On that day, which was a Sunday, the dusty streets of Riobamba began to stir at an unusually early hour. Most mornings the town awoke slowly, the villagers waiting for the equatorial sun to chase away the nighttime chill. But this day was different. From the moment that dawn broke, people began coming out of their adobe homes, and soon many were lining up along the street that led north out of town. The wealthier women had even dressed up for the occasion, picking out their finest silk clothing to wear, and were gathered in small groups, whispering in disbelief at what was about to pass. Isabel Godin was heading off into the Amazon. Everyone understood her reason for going. She hoped to rejoin her husband, Jean, who was living on the northern coast of South America, in French Guiana. He had been a member of a French scientific expedition that had come to the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1736, Jean and the others hiking up and down the Andes for nearly eight years in search of an answer to a question so abstruse that few of the local people could grasp why they had come. Even so, the villagers of Riobamba had welcomed the French scientists into their midst, more so than any other community in the viceroyalty, and after the expedition had come to an end, Isabel and Jean had lived for a time-and happily so-in Riobamba. But then, through the twists and turns of fate and the cruel politics of the time, they had become separated, Jean stranded in French Guiana and unable to return to the Spanish colony. They had now been apart for twenty years. But travel from the Andes across the Amazon? No woman had ever dared to make such a trek. Indeed, this was a journey that only a few men had ever made. When the most famous son of the town, Pedro Maldonado, had contemplated such a journey twenty-five years earlier, his family-as a friend of his later wrote-"had sought to detain him by any means." Maldonado's colleagues warned him that traveling this "unknown and dangerous route" was "imprudent and reckless," and that they personally viewed such a journey with "panicked terror." Missionaries who traveled through the upper Amazon helped fuel such fear, for inevitably they returned with tales of how hard and perilous such travel could be. The trip that lay ahead of Isabel stretched more than 3,000 miles. Even if all went well, it would take her six months. The route that she would follow east out of Riobamba would skirt around towering Mount Tungurahua, a volcano known to spit fire and rocks into the sky. The path would then disappear into a deep canyon and tumble quickly out of the Andes into a gloomy rain forest filled with the nerve-wracking cries of howler monkeys. From there, she would have to travel by dugout canoe down the turbulent headwaters of the Amazon, passing through a jungle that was home to clouds of insects and populated by any number of poisonous snakes and wild beasts, including the much feared American "tiger," which was believed to have quite an appetite for human flesh. Other hazards, wrote one eighteenth-century explorer who had gone this route, included "naked savages" who "eat their prisoners." In the center of town, the scene was growing ever more chaotic. Isabel had hired thirty-one Indian porters to transport her goods on the first leg of the journey, overland to the Rio Bobonaza, and they were busy packing a long line of mules. Isabel's traveling party had grown, too. Her two brothers had decided to come along to assure her safety, and one had decided-in a burst of questionable judgment-to bring along his eldest son, figuring that this would provide an opportunity to take him to Europe, where he could get a better education. Rumors of her impending trek had also spread far beyond Riobamba and had brought two strangers to her door, a French doctor and his traveling companion. They had been making their way along the Peruvian coast and now saw a trip across the Amazon as a more intriguing way to return to France. Both groups were bringing along servants as well: Isabel and her two brothers had two maids and a Negro slave, while thc French doctor had one personal attendant, bringing the total number in Isabel's party to forty-one. Isabel had been advised to travel as lightly, as possible-advice that she found difficult to heed. There was the gear that they needed for the journey-blankets, ponchos, and food-and her many possessions. She was, after all, now moving to France. Fancy dresses, skirts, shawls, gold-buckled shoes, lace-trimmed underwear, and silver-studded belts were just a start. Next came the silver bowls, the fine china, the gold rosaries, the earrings set with emeralds, and various fancy linens. One reed basket after another was filled to the brim, the mules braying as cinches were tightened and the baskets heaved onto their backs. Yet amid this confusion and bustle, Isabel appeared the picture of elegance and charm. She had stepped from her house that morning looking as though she were planning an evening at a lively dance. She wore a light-colored dress that billowed out from her waist, dainty cotton shoes, several silver bracelets, and two gold necklaces. Her appearance reflected who she was: a Riobamban woman who had lived all of her adult life in this village, rarely traveling far from home and enjoying the luxuries that came with being part of the elite class in colonial Peru. She was forty-one years old, a little plump, and the first streaks of white could be seen in her coal-black hair. She, like the other women of Riobamba, had simply dressed up for the occasion.

At last, the train of pack mules began to move. The procession of animals and men headed slowly down the town's main street, kicking up so much dust that Isabel's friends, waving to her as she went by, held scarves to their mouths. The mules brayed, Isabel's two brothers and several of the others rode horses, and Isabel drew up the rear. She was carried aloft in a sedan chair, the Indian porters having been given orders to jostle her as little as possible.

Chapter Two

Not Quite Round

The chain of events that led Isabel Godin to that moment in 1769 when she set off on her trek into the Amazon, had begun more than thirty-five years earlier, in a place far from her Peruvian home. At that time, a debate was raging in European scientific circles, one that was roiling the august halls of the French Academy of Sciences. The English were squaring off with the French, young scientists in the academy were battling their mentors, and tempers were such that when Voltaire jumped into the fray, with his customary stinging wit and on the side of the English, his book was summarily burned and he was forced to flee Paris. The question at hand was a profound one: What was the precise size and shape of the earth? And even more important, what did that shape reveal about the laws of gravitation and planetary motion that governed the universe? Although the argument may have turned rancorous, the fact that this question had become the most pressing scientific topic of the day, one savored by the educated public in Paris and London, represented a coming-of-age for the Enlightenment. The roots of this transforming movement dated back more than a century to the writings of the English philosopher Francis Bacon and the French mathematician René Descartes. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes argued that in order to know the world, it was necessary to doubt all accepted wisdom. That was a heretical idea in 1637, for it meant questioning Christian doctrines about the natural world. Once the mind was emptied of such beliefs, Descartes wrote, insight could arise from "an unclouded and attentive mind, which springs from the light of reason." Seventeenth-century intellectuals adopted this faith in reason as their operating manifesto, even though it brought them into conflict with religious authorities. This approach produced a steady flow of achievements in astronomy, mathematics, and mapmaking, and as it did so, the literate public in France and England developed a keen interest in science, which, in the early eighteenth century, blossomed into the Enlightenment. Paris, a city with a population of 500,000 in 1734, was at the epicenter of this revolution in thought. Upper-class men and women regularly gathered in sitting rooms to discuss art, philosophy, and science. Periodicals carried announcements of public lectures on these topics, which drew standing-room-only crowds. Lending libraries were created and stocked with books on science. As a historian of eighteenth-century France wrote, "Science was the true passion of the century at all literate levels of society, in every urban center of France, and even among the progressively minded gentleman-farmers." The debate over the size and shape of the earth, which erupted in full force in the 1720s, resonated in particular with the French public. As the members of the French Academy of Sciences proudly wrote, this question had a long history and was so elemental that the intellectual progress of human civilization could be charted by following the steps that societies had made in solving it.

Scholars in ancient Greece and other early civilizations believed that the earth was flat, which is how it appears to the untutored eye. The idea that the earth might be a sphere, freely floating in space, was first advanced in the sixth century B.C. by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. Aristotle subsequently provided evidence for this notion. The height of the sun, he noted, changed as one traveled north or south. And that could only be so, he pointed out, if one were traveling along a curve that altered one's line of sight. He estimated that the earth's circumference was 400,000 stades (about 40,000 miles). Around 235 B.C., the Greek scholar Eratosthenes, who was head of the royal library in Alexandria, came up with a clever idea for actually calculating the earth's size. He had heard that there was a well in the town of Syene where the sun cast no shadow at noon on the summer solstice. That meant that the sun must be directly overhead at that moment. Alexandria was thought to be located directly north of Syene, and in Alexandria, at noon on the summer solstice, the sun cast a shadow equal to one-fiftieth of a circle (7.2 degrees). The distance between the two cities was thus one-fiftieth of the earth's circumference. Eratosthenes estimated the cities to be 5,000 stades apart-camel caravans traveling 100 stades a day took fifty days to travel from one city to the other-and thus he concluded that the earth's circumference was 250,000 stades.


Excerpted from The Mapmaker's Wife by Robert Whitaker Copyright © 2004 by Robert Whitaker. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Robert Whitaker is a science journalist and the author of Mad In America. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Compared to this expedition, Lewis and Clark were on a romp through the park, and they were non-savants. This expedition is in the GRAND Euro tradition and I doubt it has many rivals. I am only half way thru, and it is all about the AMAZING and trying and brilliant expedition and the historical background of South America that explains much of it today. Too bad the publisher linked it to the later-to-be-wife of a minor player. But, that's American commercialism.
CCarley More than 1 year ago
Ever feel down or depressed, think life is tough, maybe feel you'll never reach your goals or sometimes just want to give up? This book will make you reminder that you can do anything, surmount any obstacles and always make it home.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was really fascinating, although possibly mistitled. A good part of the story deals with the scientific expedition, which was a pretty amazing undertaking given the difficult terrain and travel conditions. The story of Isabel's journey through the jungle to reunite with her husband was also an amazing story of endurance.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I wished I would have read History of Mapmaking's review before I bought this book. It is definitely, science, science and more science! The story has the potential to make for an interesting book of historical fiction. However, the manner in which it is written just makes for a boring read. I was hoping after 150 pages that the portion of the book referred to in the title 'Mapmaker's Wife...' would be engaging but after another 50 pages, and two-thirds of the way through. I don't care to even finish the book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
More a scientific journal than a lovestory. In the first half of the book the key relationship lasts one paragraph. Read this Only if you enjoy history of Science.