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John Michael Cummings, author of The Night I Freed John Brown
A Wonderful Work of Fiction--Rooted in America’s Legendary Past
In Museum of Human Beings, author Colin Sargent focuses on the life of a relatively little known character associated with one of the most famous American sagas —the Lewis and Clark expedition—spinning a wondrous tale spanning more than six decades. In this well-paced debut novel, we experience the new and old world through the eyes of Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, the half-breed son of Sacagawea, the expedition’s Shoshone guide to the Pacific Ocean.
Raised by William Clark after Sacagewea’s death, Jean-Baptiste, affectionately nicknamed “Pomp,” desperately seeks his white foster father’s approval and acceptance – a piercing desire thwarted throughout his lifetime despite Pomp’s eager willingness to abandon his mother’s Indian ways and immerse himself in learning the white man’s culture. But despite his keen aptitude for learning, Clark instead sends him away to Europe to be educated under the tutelage of the debauched Duke Paul of Germany. Trained by the Duke as a concert pianist, Jean-Baptiste tours Europe, but finds little more acceptance in the old world, where he is viewed by almost all as nothing more than an entertaining American oddity – a savage “dancing bear.”
Disillusioned by his experiences in the supposed civilized world, Baptiste, upon his return to America, enters a new phase of his life, one more attuned to his Indian heritage, spending many years living in the wilderness as a fur trapper. Eventually, he becomes an Indian guide for the U.S. Army, leading an expedition to the Pacific, where his story began so many years earlier.
Sargent skillfully lays out these historical details without sacrificing the pacing of the story and while presenting Baptiste as an engaging though deeply troubled character. Indeed, this novel would succeed as a pure work of fiction, even if Baptiste were not the son of a famous Indian woman rooted in America’s legendary past.
Sargent’s command of language is remarkable, undoubtedly owing to his background as a poet. He writes with an obvious appreciation of the nuances inherent in the words heard and spoken by someone like Baptiste, who, apparently like the author, is a man who never ceases to be amazed by “language’s power to be either a wall or a way to move between worlds.”