Champlain’s Dream, by David Hackett Fischer (Knopf Canada, 2008)
I don’t read a lot of biographies or lengthy non-fiction, partly because they’re – well – long and potentially dry. But when a friend told me about an interview she’d seen with the author of Champlain’s Dream, it caught my attention.
After all, Champlain is part of my local history. And I’d just read Susan Young de Biagi’s novel, Cibou, set in the same time frame. Plus, based on my friend’s report, Samuel de Champlain sounded like a genuinely nice person.
Author David Hackett Fischer is a well-respected historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for a previous book, Washington’s Crossing. I’m not in his league, and make no pretence of reviewing this book in a scholarly light (although 100 pages of source notes and a slew of detailed appendices support my impression of its integrity).
Champlain’s Dream is a good read, at times compelling, laced with surprising touches of humour and sensory details to draw the reader into key scenes. The author clearly knows his settings first-hand. He also knows how to bring a wealth of research to life in engaging prose. My fears of dry academia were unfounded. (Although I didn’t push it to read the appendices.)
The book is a balanced portrayal of a key historical figure – neither idealized nor vilified, but objectively and fairly drawn. As a fiction writer, I appreciated how Professor Fischer traced the development of Champlain’s character in his formative years during France’s terrible wars of religion. As a Christian, I found it refreshing to see Champlain’s faith treated with the same respect given to the other facets of his life.
Professor Fischer writes, “Champlain believed that Christianity made men more free, ‘plus libre’ in his phrase. He was thinking of grace as liberation from sin, and of Christianity as the freedom to be one with Christ in communion with other free souls.” [p.319] Works for me!
Samuel de Champlain was a man of his time, similar to us in some ways but with an outlook that was in other ways very distant from ours today. His politics, relationships and faith were part of his worldview.
Champlain’s vision was of a new world where people of all nations could live together in freedom, with mutual tolerance and respect. His command and tactical abilities, problem-solving skills and thirst for exploration made a great contribution to the development of a large section of North America, and his writings and maps are a rich legacy.
Champlain’s Dream is currently available in hardcover and audio book, with a trade paperback version coming in October 2009. For an overview of the contents, visit the Knopf Canada website.
To read an excerpt from the introduction to Champlain’s Dream, click here. By the way, this is one introduction you don’t want to skip. It’s interesting and lays the groundwork for the rest of the book.
Thank you, Professor Fischer, for introducing me to a remarkable man (and opening my eyes to how few explorers shared his largeness of heart). He sounds like a genuinely nice person indeed, and it’s good to know there’ve been a few.