Museum of Human Beings
We first meet Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau in 1805 as he bounces along on his mother Sacagawea’s back, seeing the world with her eyes as they lead the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific. He is a child, and a man, caught in the middle – half-French, half-Shoshone, struggling to find his place in the world and watching America grow up around him, struggling to find its identity.
This sprawling, quasi-bildungsroman, loosely based on J.B. Charbonneau’s life, is a story of dichotomies – “Injun” vs. white, the wilderness vs. civilization, the new world vs. the old, past vs. present, knowledge vs. knowing. Baptiste struggles throughout the book to find his place in these dichotomies, never bridging, always seeking to choose sides. It is a story of the labels we put on each other, and those we take on to ourselves.
The book is beautifully written, and has a good sense of time and place, but I felt held at a distance. Though Baptiste’s life was full of adventure and tragedy, I found it hard to really care about him, and watched his struggles as though he were the subject of an anthropological study. Perhaps, given the themes and subjects of the story, this was intentional – he seemed like another exhibit in Clark’s Museum of Human Beings, and not a flesh-and-blood person to struggle with and care for.
Museum of Human Beings is an ambitious, thoughtful book, but it ultimately fell short for me.