Sixteen-year-old Elisha Stone is elated after joining a scientific expedition that is to explore Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It is the spring of 1844, and three years have passed since he ran away from home. Missing his mother, he decides to write her a letter. Back in Newell, Massachusetts, the Reverend William Edward Stone, Elisha’s father, reads this letter. Grieving his wife’s death and compelled by guilt, the minister leaves his congregation and sets out to find his son.
What comes after is an extraordinary first novel, an absolutely engaging narrative of passage, populated by intriguing characters. There are the two competing heads of the Michigan expedition: Silas Brush, a bigoted scientist and speculator, and Professor Tiffin, who is determined to find Native image stones that will prove the unity of mankind. There is Susette Morel, a beautiful and enigmatic “half-breed,” the team’s guide, and Jonah Crawley, an itinerant salesman traveling with the girl-woman Adele, who can talk to the dead. The Expeditions presents a world of heartless frontier cities and uncharted wilderness. It is a dangerous landscape that, in the fashion of Joseph Conrad, is cruel, beautiful, and a metaphor for the parallel voyage Elisha and Reverend Stone undertake, an inner journey toward one another, an exploration of their own hearts.
Composed even when violent, evocative, perceptive, and unfailingly elegant, The Expeditions is unforgettable reading. The language is breathtaking: “He lingered over the memories, like fingertips drawn to a bruise,” and the descriptions memorable: “They paddled through mornings of damp heat and high, tissuey clouds. Their course skirted the shoreline, which varied from stony breakwaters to pocked sandstone faces to belts of smooth, sugar-white sand. Beach grass riffled like whitecaps in the breeze.”
Altogether a stunning work, one of the best novels I have read in years.