La Salle is an epistolary novel that presents a selective view of the explorations by the 17th century French explorer in search of the Mississippi (called the Messipi by the “savages” and the river Colbert by LaSalle). At the beginning we join La Salle and his comrades in the midst of the expedition, where he successfully finds and navigates the Messipi all the way to the delta that empties into the Gulf of Mexico, encountering various “savage” tribes, both friendly and hostile, along the way.
In the same way that genuine historical documents will leave gaps due to the loss of papers over the years, the second part of the book skips the return voyage and begins immediately with La Salle presenting Chuka, his Chicaza (Chickasaw) prisoner/guide at the court of Louis XIV. Once La Salle secures his funding, part three finds us back in the new world, after the explorer has overshot the delta trying to find it by water. This time the danger comes as much from the disaffection of his own men as from the inhospitable environment.
Vernon’s accomplishment in this remarkable work is nothing short of alchemy. Not only does he succeed in creating a believable voice for the Sieur de la Salle, but he ingeniously gives the reader a perfectly rounded view of the explorer’s ill-fated expeditions by creating another voice in the form of Goupil, La Salle’s fictional cartographer. Throughout the novel, LaSalle’s often optimistic accounts are balanced by Goupil’s realistic view of the disease, deprivation, and constant danger surrounding them. The result is a constantly shifting landscape where the reader is unsure at any moment which point of view to trust.
La Salle should be required reading for anyone interested in the explorations of the new world, in the 17th century, or in the craft of writing historical fiction. Highly recommended.