Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Review: Museum of Human Beings

Museum of Human Beings by Colin Sargent is the story of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea, who led Lewis and Clark across the continent to the Pacific. She was also Clark’s lover, and after her death, he raises Baptiste as a foster son. I found Baptiste and Clark’s relationship to be heartbreaking, almost tragic. Baptiste wants a father, but instead, Clark treats him as a specimen for his bizarre museum. The rest of the book details Baptiste’s many travels and adventures, both good and bad, in Europe and America, as he tries to learn who he is and where he fits in.

Colin Sargent is clearly a talented man. According to his website, he’s a playwright, poet, editor and magazine publisher. His talent with words shows in Museum of Human Beings. The book has a heaviness to it, each word weighted down with the obvious care Sargent took in selecting each one. In particular, I loved Baptiste’s conversations with Ekaterina, his friend in Europe. However, this weightiness really cut both ways. There were truly lyrical passages in this book, sections that read like a prose poem. On the other hand, many passages dragged, I thought, including much of Baptiste’s time in New Orleans.

As regular readers of this blog may have noticed, it took me a while to finish this book. First, I had some personal undertakings to attend to, which kept me too busy to read much. Then, to be honest, I struggled to read this. Sargent has created a world in this book that is very uncomfortable to inhabit as a reader. Not that that is a bad thing, as I think that is true to life for these people/characters, but I never found myself looking forward to picking up this book. Once I was reading, I was engaged but even then, I was happy to put it down when it was time to stop reading for the night.

When I talked about this book with my husband, he made a great observation. This book is like a lot of very good literature: worth the time, but once read, I won't feel the need to accomplish reading it again.

I think that fans of American and Native American history will love Museum of Human Beings. Lewis and Clark aficionados may get a shock at how poorly their heroes are regarded (by Baptiste), but should enjoy reading the life story of the last member of the famed expedition. For me, it wasn’t quite my cup of tea.

Buy Museum of Human Beings on Amazon.


  1. Thanks for the review! I was really interested in this ER book, but I'm also not a fan of books you really have to slog through, no matter how elucidating.

    I see you're reading The Eyre Affair - one of my favourite books ever! Hope you're enjoying it!

  2. Hi.
    I just purchased MUSEUM... but have only skimmed it. At first glance, your review seems to be quite judicious.
    Mr. Sargent's highly fictional account obviously is deliberative and fine-tuned.
    You may have interest in a different text, the historical JEAN BAPTISTE CHARBONNEAU, MAN OF TWO WORLDS.
    In my opinion, the true story of JBC, Clark, Sacagawea and Toussaint surpasses any attempts at drama or fiction. After knowing the complexities of JBC's story it's difficult to imagine how he fully functioned in the period before the westward migration, but he thrived. Particularly considering how we live today, in my opinion he was the most remarkable person of his milieu.

  3. Thank you for reading and reviewing Museum of Human Beings.
    Here are some more reactions, including a starred review in this week's Library Jounal:

    Starred Review of Museum of Human Beings in Library Journal, December 15, 2008

    Sargent, Colin. Museum of Human Beings. McBooks Pr. 2008. c.352p. ISBN 978-1-59013-167-1. $23.95. F

    In 1805, Lewis and Clark embarked on one of the most fantastic journeys in American history. Even today their expedition of discovery continues to captivate our imagination as well as our fascination with the mysterious Shoshone guide, Sacagawea. For approximately two years, Sacagawea, traveling with her infant son Jean-Baptiste, endured the harsh challenges of the American wilderness as she led the expedition forward. This debut novel, based on historical facts, focuses on Jean-Baptiste and his struggle to find his identity. The boy’s education (sponsored by Clark), his travels with European nobility, and his return to his own roots as a guide and explorer are vividly brought to life. From the beginning to the novel’s spellbinding conclusion, playwright and poet Sargent allows us an intimate glimpse into what could have been the heart of Jean-Baptiste. This memorable novel will captivate all who read it. Highly recommended for all public library historical fiction collections.-Melody Ballard, Pima Cty. P.L., AZ
    – Library Journal, 12/15/08

    “Maine author’s novel gives fresh slant on young America”
    REVIEW from Audience, Books: Maine Sunday Telegram, November 16

    The sweeping American adventure novel “Museum of Human Beings” by Portland publisher, playwright and poet Colin Sargent is one of the most satisfying works of fiction that I have read in years. That it is written by a Maine contemporary gives this reviewer a particular, if ill-deserved, satisfaction, for I always enjoy good things springing from local ground. That it is a first novel would be difficult to believe, unless you saw Sargent’s vigorous, nicely crafted play “One Hundred Percent American Girl” in 2002.

    Of the play, staged at the Arts Conservatory Theater, I will only say that it worked and worked well. Its title character, Portland born Mildred Gillars, who became World War II’s fabled Axis Sally, was vividly imagined in suburban retirement. Clearly, Sargent never piddles around.

    In “Museum of Human Beings” he again goes for the heart, soul and body of a celebrated, though shadowy, historical figure.

    Every American schoolchild knows Sacagawea of Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) fame. Many will recall that she traveled with an infant son, though few will recall that his name was Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. As Sargent points out in a postscript, “Baptiste is very much in circulation today, still forever carried on his mother’s back on the Sacagawea $1 coin.”

    “Museum of Human Beings,” which takes its title from Gen. William Clark’s cabinets of artifacts at his St. Louis home, is the story of early national America seen through the life and adventures of Baptiste in the years after the Lewis and Clark trek. In some weird sense, Baptiste, who grew up in the museum as a ward of Clark, is an object d’art.

    Sargent sends the youthful Baptiste on a multi-leveled grand tour of discovery that never lets up or disappoints. In geographic terms, Baptiste travels to New Orleans, Paris, Germany, Malta and Fort Bent in the far American West.

    On the surface, the novel is pure adrenaline. It can be read chapter to colorful chapter nonstop. Where else would you find the likes of Beethoven, Longfellow, Jim Beckwourth and Kit Carson all inhabiting the same pages? There are a few cameo appearances, but most of the historic personages are subtly sketched and add to the development of Baptiste and the narrative.

    At first, the book put me in a mind of a boyhood favorite, Mika Waltari’s “The Adventurer.” Like the protagonist in that book, Baptiste works his way through changing environments and personal situations that always seem right to the reader. Baptiste is the ultimate outsider “Washi” (half-breed to Indians) or “Indianer” to Germans, and is always searching for the identity of his natural father. That quest narrows to the cold, scientific Clark or the seemingly harmful guide Toussaint Charboneau.

    It is with both depth of character and understanding of the tectonic shifts of history (as well as its little gusts), that Sargent’s real strength as a novelist emerges. Like Annie Proulx, Colin Sargent is among a handful of writers who actually care for their characters.

    Toussaint could have been a cardboard cut-out villain, the dysfunctional father gone mountainman. Other writers would have made him so, perhaps with a bit of evil Franco garnish for bad measure. In the “Museum of Human Beings,” Toussaint comes off as big, brutal, extraordinary and understandable. Like him or not, he is a free, multi-edged man and no stereotype.

    Indeed, Sargent revels in the uncertainty of the human comedy and no doubt takes his model for the book from Voltaire’s “Candide” (1759). But there is nothing stale or imitative about “Museum of Human Beings.” Its hero is well aware that this is not the best of all possible worlds, especially after an ocean voyage with a Duke Paul, a German traveler, which proves anything but enjoyable (except to the Duke). I should note that this is not a children’s book.

    Still, even the calculating, bloodless nobleman and his servant, Vogelweide, prove complex and in their way, sadly human. What a vivid cast of characters! It makes you want to travel back in time.

    With wit, humor, detailed understanding of the time, imagination and uncomplicated storytelling, Sargent opens a door on an era when Beethoven and the Plains Indian culture were in their twilight and glory and the United States was trying to assert its own identity as well. In 1840, Harrison ran for President as “Old Tippecanoe” the Indian fighter and the “American Cincinnatus,” for the Latin farmer who saved Rome.

    In 1855, Longfellow wrote “Hiawatha,” an American Indian epic, but his style and form remained Virgilian. All this is unseen bone and muscle beneath the handsome, full skin of Sargent’s richly imagined, thoroughly enjoyable novel.

    – William David Barry, Pyrrhus Venture for the Maine Sunday Telegram


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