Whitaker, Robert. The Mapmakers' Wife (Basic Books, 2004). 295 pp,
Robert Whitaker, journalist and award-winner
of the George Polk Award for Medical Writing, a National Association of
Science Writers' Award for best magazine article, and 1998 finalist for
the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, has written "a true tale of love,
murder, and survival in the Amazon" in The Mapmaker's Wife. The book
reads like an adventure novel, but is in fact a well-researched historical
account of a 1735 French scientific expedition to the Amazon.
Set in Spanish colonial America, the charge
of the French expedition is to search for the answer to the question of
"What shape and size is the earth?" Their mission takes ten years to accomplish.
The first part of the book relates the intrigue and adventures that these
academics experience as they deal with the politics of French/Spanish/Portuguese
relations, the harshness of the natural environment of the Andes and Amazon
Basin, and the bureaucracy of Spanish Colonial America. During the expedition,
one of the members, Jean Godin, falls in love with and marries an upper
class Peruvian woman, Isabel, daughter of a local Spanish businessman.
As the expedition comes to an end, Godin makes
the treacherous journey to French Guiana to arrange to bring his wife and
family back to France. There he gets caught up in the complexities of an
ever-shifting French administration and a corrupt colonial bureaucracy.
Many years pass without resolving his travel issues, and without contact
with his wife. Finally, Isabel decides to make the journey to French Guiana
to be reunited with her husband. She organizes an expedition and heads out
across the Andes and the Amazon River basin. It is a harrowing and dangerous
trip, never before taken by a woman. In fact, few men had survived this
The book is accompanied by original drawings
and maps as well as other excellent visual images. It is well-researched
and annotated, drawing upon the journals of the travelers as well as archival
material from the colonial and governmental records of France, Portugal
and Spain. In addition, the author himself made the journey through the
Andes and down the Amazon River.
This book is suitable for high school teachers
and above who are looking for a readable, exciting tale of the 18th
century. It fits well into the world history survey because it brings to
life the conflicts that existed between the various nations who laid claim
to the Americas. The expedition demonstrates the type of competitive scientific
research that was going on at the time as well as the perils associated
with it. The book discusses colonial administrations and economies, the
roles of both indigenous people and Africans in South American society,
and the role of women of both Spanish/Creole and indigenous backgrounds.
The drawings provide ample opportunities to study attitudes and stereotypes
of the time. The careful use of documentary evidence, moreover, provides
an excellent model for students to follow in their own writing.
- Consider examples of the relationships among the various social classes
in Spanish America (social structure; labor systems).
- Consider the role and position of women of various classes in the
colonial empire (gender roles).
- Consider the organization of colonial governments and their relations
to the governments of the colonizing nations (changing governmental
structure; interaction between regions; economics).
- Consider the impact of the Europeans on the Americas (global interactions).
- Consider the ways science is advanced in this time period, the role
of scientific societies and the topics of interest to these scholars
(science and technology).
Mary G. Saracino
Brewster High School, New York