‘Fate’ explores depression, Meriwether Lewis

“The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis”

by Michael Pritchett (Unbridled Books, 416 pages, $24.95)

Of Capt. Meriwether Lewis, we know this: Three years after returning from the Lewis and Clark expedition, he was dead of gunshot wounds, probably a suicide, at Grinder’s Stand, an isolated inn in rural Tennessee.

He was a national hero, governor of the upper Louisiana Territory, former private secretary to President Jefferson and by most accounts, seriously depressed.

While murder theories persist, most assume what nobody will know for sure – that he took his life in October 1809.

Now comes Bill Lewis, high school teacher and descendant of the explorer, obsessed with the death of his forebear and desperately trying to finish a book about it in time for the 200th anniversary.

But in a new historical novel by Michael Pritchett, his first, Lewis the teacher – a fictional character – finds himself dragged into the same depressive depths that plagued Lewis the explorer, and bit by bit we see their lives and identities intertwine.

Both teacher and explorer were frustrated by affairs of the heart, felt they had done all they would do and were heading down, into a time that was no longer their own.

Capt. Lewis felt the expedition that would define him forever was a waste, a failure, because he was unable to comply with President Jefferson’s orders to find a waterway to the Pacific and the lost tribes of Israel. Neither were there, but he didn’t know it.

Lewis the teacher, Pritchett writes, would lie awake with his depression, “that siege engine of mental illness,” contemplating his professional setbacks, knowing that “Lewis the explorer was lying in his grave in Tennessee and not worrying about a single thing.”

Pritchett’s Lewis, the explorer, was hopelessly mashed on Indian translator Sacajawea, whose lout of a husband, Charboneau, was also on the voyage, making her unobtainable.

Lewis the teacher, married for 13 years, was similarly enthralled by Joaney, a pregnant former student who “always danced out of reach, who ducked his kiss.”

The book has some complicating baggage, and a frequent reversion to the language style of the day can slow things down, but as a whole, it works.

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