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Library Journal Review
Finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, Whitaker (Mad in America) here combines a carefully documented account of the 1736-44 French Academy of Science-sponsored expedition of Charles-Marie de La Condamine to Peru to measure "the distance of one degree of latitude at the equator" with an equally well-documented story of Isabel Godin, who survived, alone and against all odds, a perilous journey through the Upper Amazon to become reunited with her mapmaker husband, Jean Godin, the youngest member of the La Condamine expedition. Although the interweaving of these two accounts can make for slow going there is a 20-year hiatus between Isabel Godin's ordeal and the outcome of La Condamine's somewhat politically suspect expedition Whitaker's diligence (both in seeking out original sources and in personally retracing Isabel's journey) results in a valuable addition to a little-explored period in South American history. Particularly interesting are the insights Whitaker gives us into France's late entry into the contest still being waged for New World riches. The nine-page bibliography (which includes three pages of primary sources), backed up by 24 pages of notes, is well worth the price of admission. Recommended for academic libraries and large public libraries with an interest in 17th- and 18th-century scientific exploration. Robert C. Jones, Warrensburg, MO (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Review
As was customary for girls from elite families in 18th-century colonial Peru, Isabel Grames?n was barely a teenager when she married Jean Godin, a Frenchman visiting the territory as an assistant on a scientific expedition. Planning to bring his wife back to France, Godin trekked across South America to check in with the French colonial authorities, but was refused permission to return up the Amazon back into Spanish territory to retrieve Isabel. So they remained a continent apart for 20 years until 1769, when Isabel started making her way east. Her party ran aground on the Bobonaza River (which feeds into the Amazon), and though almost everyone perished, she managed to survive alone in the rainforest for weeks. Although science journalist Whitaker doesn't directly refer to his own modern trek following Isabel's route down the Bobonaza, his descriptions of the conditions she would have encountered convey his familiarity with the territory, often quite viscerally, ("There are giant stinging ants, ants that bite, and ants that both bite and sting"). His account of the French expedition that brought Godin to Peru and then separated him from his new wife is equally vivid, with exhilarating discoveries and petty squabbles-and richly illustrated with contemporary drawings. Though an early, long digression tracing the history of attempts to measure the size of the earth may establish the context a little too solidly, making some readers impatient, they'll certainly be hooked once the story really begins. Isabel and Jean's adventures are riveting enough on their own, and colonial South America's largely unfamiliar history adds another compelling layer to this well-crafted yarn. Agent, Jane Dystel. (Apr.) Forecast: Whitaker's book deserves a large audience, and it will benefit from an author tour, ad campaign and NPR feature campaign. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
School Library Journal Review
Adult/High School-Whitaker merges a gripping account of scientific exploration with an amazing story of survival in the wilderness. For those who think of the Enlightenment only in terms of sedate Paris salons, this book will alter that image forever. The best minds of Europe in the 1730s knew that the Earth was not perfectly round, but the exact size and shape were in hot debate. Someone figured out that to nail down the answer certain data was needed, and that the best place to get that data was at the equator. Given the technological and political realities of the time, that meant one place: Peru. A scientific expedition was organized in Paris and sent to the New World in 1735. After 10 years of incredible hardships and setbacks, it accomplished its mission (and a host of other enlightenments along the way). As captivating as this story proved to be, another developed: a young member of the party met, fell in love with, and married an upper-class, 13-year-old Peruvian girl. Due to a tangled swirl of unfortunate events, this couple became separated for 20 years (beginning just before the birth of their only child). Finally, in 1769, Isabel Grames-n set off on a trek through the most inhospitable of jungles to rejoin her husband in French Guiana. The author's depiction of that harrowing journey is the crowning jewel of this outstanding volume.-Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Only an exceptional life could connect the Enlightenment salons of Paris with the tribal villages of the Amazon jungle. Peruvian-born Isabel Grameson lived such a life, and now a prizewinning science writer has retraced its improbable course in a riveting narrative. That story begins with eighteenth-century physicists debating theoretical issues that only observers positioned in South America can resolve. But the French academics who set out to make these observations soon leave behind the empyreal world of pure formulas: only by traversing unmapped rivers, scaling Andean peaks, enduring vexatious insects, and pacifying murderous Peruvians do these resolute savants obtain the longitudinal data they seek. Ultimately, though, these scientific adventurers endure the disappointment of seeing their work validate a British rather than a French paradigm! Finally, too, the expedition sees all its scientific valor eclipsed by the heroism of one beautiful young Peruvian woman--Isabel Grameson--who marries one of the group's cartographers. For it is this woman who--when cruelly separated from her husband--braves perils far beyond those faced by the scientists. Readers can only marvel at how Isabel survives a rain-forest journey (personally repeated, afoot and afloat, by Whitaker) that claims the lives of all of her companions and leaves her stranded and presumed dead. A rare story, taut with intellectual controversy, romantic passion, and harrowing danger. --Bryce Christensen Copyright 2004 Booklist
Kirkus Book Review
The tale of the first European scientific expedition to South America and its extraordinary aftermath. Science journalist Whitaker (Mad in America, 2002, etc.) begins in 1769, when Isabel Godin took her first steps on a journey down the Amazon River to meet husband Jean, who some two decades earlier had been one of a group of French scientists seeking to determine the exact shape of the Earth by measuring a degree of longitude near the equator in what was then Peru. As with other Spanish colonies of the time, Peruvians of Spanish descent maintained an iron control over the lower classes of Indian or mixed heritage. The Frenchmen, at first welcomed as representatives of European culture, inevitably ran afoul of local prejudices, which led to one member of the expedition being murdered in broad daylight. High altitude and primitive conditions impeded the scientists' measurements, which took seven years to complete. Meanwhile, Jean Godin, a young assistant, had married Isabel Gramesón, the daughter of a prominent local family. When the expedition leaders returned to Europe, Godin stayed behind. After falling into financial difficulties, he traveled to French Guiana, where for 20 years he called upon the king (or anyone else who would listen) to bail him out. Meanwhile, Isabel stayed with her family, raising a daughter who died without ever seeing her father. When Godin sent for his wife at last, she set off down the Amazon. The journey was a nightmare. Isabel, who probably had never spent a night outdoors, was stranded in the jungle. Two of her brothers died, as did those of her servants who had not already abandoned her. Whitaker brings forward a wealth of detail to throw both the scientific and social history into sharp relief. Indeed, he makes Isabel's ordeal so vivid that her rescue, reunion with Godin, and journey with him to France come almost as an anticlimax. A great story, deftly told. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.