Monday, April 06, 2009


Not every historical character is so lucky in his biographer as Samuel de Champlain is in David Hackett Fischer. Fischer has tremendous good will and sympathy towards his subject, and that always makes a biography more pleasurable to read.

Champlain was an explorer, a mapmaker, an artist, a writer, a capable captain of people in difficult circumstances, an idealist, a seasoned soldier, and person of extraordinarily good temperament. In short, he was a French version of the fabled Elizabethan man, and with qualities of character superior to many Elizabethan men.

This is a very good book: it has a genuinely heroic subject in Champlain, and it tells a great story in vigorous language.

Fischer follows in part the example of Samuel Eliot Morison's "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," a venerable though somewhat dated biography of Columbus, by using his personal knowledge of sailing and the contemporary geography of Champlain’s New France to bring vivid life to his story and explain matters like the naming of certain places. Since I too know and have lived in some of these areas, I found this fascinating.

His treatment of the Indians of New France is refreshingly honest yet sympathetic, much in the spirit of Champlain himself, and by honest I’m including the very brutal aspects of aboriginal society sometimes overlooked today in sentimental history.

The book’s shortcomings are relatively small. Fischer is repetitive in small quantities at times, repeating some fact or observation offered not many pages before. This surely is the fault of a somewhat slack editor.

Another fault is in the somewhat poor reproduction of many illustrations, including a number of Champlain’s own drawings.

Fischer also does not tell us enough about certain matters such as Champlain’s marriage, a fascinating subject involving as it does a woman from a fairly distinguished French family who comes and spends time in New France. He briefly tells us how the marriage goes through ups and downs, but any reader will want a few more details filled in, if indeed such material exists in the records.

A significant book for Canadian history, the history of North American settlement and exploration, the history of North American aboriginal people, and all lovers of good biography and good yarns.