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The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis by…

The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis

by Michael Pritchett

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568319,314 (3.5)2



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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
High school teacher Bill Lewis is writing a book on Capt. Merriwether Lewis and his Voyage of Discovery in 1804. Told in alternating sections contrasting the early 19th and early 21st centuries, we follow Capt Lewis through his search for the Northwest Passage to his years recommending Indian policy as Governor of the Louisiana territory to his suicide just three years after the voyage's end. At the same time we learn of Bill, his struggle with depression, his troubled marriage, his perhaps more troubled adolescent son and a high school student who has a child and leaves school.

There was something about this book that was just so emotionally affecting and I'm afraid I don't quite know how to put that into words. While there was some repetition between the sections and people in Bill's life did occasionally seem to ask about his writing a bit more frequently than I might expect anyone in [i]my[/i] life to do, I didn't really find that detracting from the story. All in all, I found this to be a truly excellent read and it did most certainly make me interested in reading more about the journey of Lewis and Clark, as the author hopes in his end notes.

I give this one ****1/2 only because I really hesitate to give any book 5 out of 5. ( )
2 vote karen_o | Feb 25, 2008 |
With just a taste of this novel based on the excerpt I received, I am unsure if I will bother with the entire novel. I found it difficult to be drawn into the story of Lewis & Clark and their expedition, though if I felt the need to truly understand that piece of history, this might be the book to finally gain my interest. I was intrigued by the mental processes of Bill Lewis, but enough to drag myself through the historical portions? ( )
  staffoa | Jan 28, 2008 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis by Michael Pritchett was a fascinating, engrossing book. I looked forward to reading this book so much as this summer my husband and I took a trip following a northwest route, some of it following the same route taken during Lewis and Clark’s famous journey. I stood at Cape Disappointment where Lewis and Clark stood, trying to imagine their reaction to what they saw. Almost impossible to imagine as the whole developed country lay behind me and a vast wilderness lay behind Lewis and Clark at they looked out at the Pacific.

While the language used, that of the nineteenth century, was difficult to read and somewhat slow going, it fit the story and made it feel quite real. The story is told in two voices, that of Capt. Meriwether Lewis and of Bill Lewis, a high school history teacher who is trying to write the history of Capt. Lewis. As the book progresses, you find that Capt. Lewis and Bill Lewis share many traits, one being an overwhelming depression, to the point of wondering how each got up every morning to do the work assigned to them. Bill Lewis is hampered by many factors, his marriage is in trouble, his son won’t eat and he has an irresistible impulse to associate with women who will only further damage his marriage. He despairs of ever finding whether Capt. Lewis actually committed suicide or was murdered.

Overall this was an engrossing, excellent book. The overwhelming amount of research to write this book was obvious and a job well done. I look forward to reading other books by Mr. Pritchett. ( )
1 vote readingrebecca | Nov 19, 2007 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book starts off strong. I found the parts about Capt. Lewis interesting, and the story of the modern day character engaging also. The problem is the book got so boring in the middle I found I couldn't go on even though I wanted to know what happened. I picked it up several different times and it just seems to be stuck, going nowhere, so I finally gave up. ( )
  RoxieF | Nov 17, 2007 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Michael Pritchett’s debut novel, “The Melancholy Life of Capt. Lewis” has a Faulkner-esque quality; a dense, multi-layering of past and present; a gradual unfolding of plot and circumstances. Pritchett’s control of this technically difficult story-telling method is admirable.

When I started “Melancholy Life,” I was insecure about never having read a history of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Though for years I’ve had a copy of Stephen Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage,” I’ve yet to read it. At times I was tempted to put “Melancholy Fate” down, quickly read the Ambrose, and then start back up again. In the end, I let my ignorance of Lewis & Clark be a kind of litmus to how well-told “Melancholy Fate” would be. I had no preconceived notions, nothing to compare the story to.

As the title suggests, this is a story in which the two main characters, Meriwether Lewis and a contemporary character, Bill Lewis, both suffer from “melancholy,” that is, profound depressive episodes. The story see-saws back and forth between Capt. Lewis’ exploratory journey, and the present-day Bill, who is a high-school history teacher attempting to write a book about the historical Lewis. The parallels between the two Lewis’ is clear: depression to the point of insanity, difficulty in interpersonal relationships, attraction to unattainable women, same last name (there is no hint of them being related).

The historical details of the early Lewis narrative are sparse. Pritchett is more concerned with painting a kind of abstract of Lewis – what he might have been thinking and feeling, how these thoughts might have influenced his actions and words, as recorded by history and by his own extensive journals. During the present-day narratives, Bill fills in more historical details during many conversations with other characters. As the book progresses towards the historical Lewis’ inevitable(?) suicide (or was it a murder – that is a question Bill Lewis wrestles over), there is a mounting tension in the present, in which the reader wonders whether Bill, who is similar to Lewis is so many ways, will follow the same course. His emotional state is so convincingly miserable, even the reader wonders how he could possibly keep going on.

The psychological rendering of both main characters is excellent. Any reader who has had experience with depression will be able to strongly identify with them. However, while I was able to maintain sympathy for Meriwether throughout the story, there was a point where I just wanted to slap Bill and say, “Better living through chemistry, dude.” There is very little reference to medication or medical help for depression in general. Towards the beginning of the story, there is an incident that suggests Bill neglects his own medical care, which is troubling, because in this day and age, so much of what Meriwether would have been helpless against, Bill could have received help for. It could be that Bill’s neglect of his personal health (as also illustrated by a smoking habit) is a deliberate attempt to get inside the mind and experience of the historical Lewis, or perhaps he is just simply so depressed he doesn’t care. If the latter is Pritchett’s intent, it is masterfully done, if not terribly evident to the reader.

The book sets the reader up for a profound, end-of-the-story kind of redemption and revelation, and while I really think Pritchett is aiming for this – a glimmer of hope with which to leave the reader – I don’t really think he pulls it off. The readers lives so deeply inside the misery and insanity of both Lewis’ inner lives for so long, that it’s hard to come back from that place.

What I loved best about this book, was the historical drawing of Meriwether Lewis, the sense of exploring a new land for the very first time. The idea that in discovering something, in both the naming and measuring of it, its mystery – its beauty and purity – can be diminished. Meriwether and Bill both sense a kind of malevolence beneath the surface of this new country, this United States; it is suggested that the Enlightenment is a myth and a deception. It never happens because no one is ever actually “enlightened.” A current of social malevolence carries forward to the present age, where undertones of cruelty towards society’s weakest members – through the seemingly benign institutions of baseball and golf, for example – still exist.

“Melancholy Fate” leaves the uninitiated reader wanting to learn more about Lewis & Clark. Though not always an easy book to read, I recommend it, particularly for people interested in American history, or those who, like me, have had experience with depression.

Where this country started – nee, how it started – and where we’ve come… there is a thread there, a link that is worth studying and ruminating over. Pritchett is an admirable writer and I look forward to following his career. ( )
1 vote alaskabookworm | Nov 12, 2007 |
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While writing a biography of his famous namesake, Bill Lewis, a highschool history teacher, nearly loses himself in his attempts to understand one of the great untold stories in American history--the adventures and subsequent suicide of Meriwether Lewis. Even as he struggles to illuminate that strange and exuberant time and and falls under the spell of the elusively seductive persona of Capt. Lewis, Bill finds himself fighting his own personal crisis, brought on by a clinical depression that threatens not only his book, but his job, his family, his 13year marriage, and his own survival past the.

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