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True story?

Reimagining the Lewis and Clark expedition, again

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Stranger things have happened. Stranger things are going to keep happening. With the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition upon us, Montana and the other states along the route of the voyage are going to have to brace for all manner of well-meaning but oddball events and gestures. The weirdest bit of Bicentennialiana I’ve heard so far is a plan to retrace the route of the voyage on Jet Skis, although that news is over two years old by now and I haven’t heard of any recent developments.

However misguided and inappropriate this plan might seem to most people (one conservation official compared it to following the Cherokee Trail of Tears in a Jeep Cherokee), at least there’s something so genuinely, liberatingly, over-the-top stupid about the idea that you almost have to like it.

The main vanguard of the new invasion, apart from the hordes of tourists, is going to cast itself in the guise of literary and perhaps cinematic re-discovery. It will not be predominantly Montanan in origin, by which I mean writers from elsewhere will be the ones doing most of the groping. And, in all fairness, it’s not like Lewis and Clark are any more of our beeswax than Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher’s. Still, it piques my sense of Montana chauvinism when some Eastern dude, in the original sense of the word, comes cantering up with his shiny new spurs a jinglin’ and janglin’ and announces his aim to write a book about the explorers. Defensible or not (generally not), I have my persnickety opinions as to who may and who may not write about Montana, and rare is the book that can charm me out of my opinions as quickly as The True Account.

Quickly, I say, though not immediately. The character of Private True Teague Kinneson, who springs to life virtually full-formed less than fifteen pages into the novel, at first seems a little too perfect. A little too eccentric-Yankee-uncle perfect, to be precise—which is exactly what the private is to his nephew, Ticonderoga, the admiring acolyte charged both with keeping an eye on the private, and penning this fanciful account of the race to the Pacific across the Louisiana Purchase.

Private True Teague Kinneson has what the soldiers of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front referred to as a “shooting license”—a head injury that absolves him of responsibility for his actions. He received a sharp blow to the head shortly after the battle for his nephew’s namesake fort on Lake Champlain during the Revolution, and ever since then he’s been a couple tampings short of a musket load. True Teague Kinneson is a combination of holy fool, mad inventor and deranged demagogue who takes vigorous intellectual issue with everything from Hamiltonian Federalism to Linnaean taxonomy. He wears a codpiece (incorrectly), a stocking cap with bell attached (so he always knows where he is), and a copper dome to hold his noggin together. He’s also an early pothead, but instead of sitting around staring at blacklit woodcuts, True prefers to spend his THC time mounting classical voyages of discovery in miniature in his backyard.

All in all, a suitable candidate for tilting at windmills or possibly catapulting back into King Arthur’s court—but not, certainly, for a convincingly manful divesting of virgin territory. That very sentiment, however, represents the last of the reservations I harbored before finding myself dragged along on the private’s transcontinental quest and, in the bargain, through Mosher’s novel-length shaggy-dog tale. A Montana picaresque (or partly Montana, anyway) with a Yankee crackpot reprising the role of Don Quixote? Why not, indeed?

When the private goes missing from his Vermont home, Ticonderoga tracks him to Boston, and finds him mustering a cast of street urchins for one of his beloved illumination-plays—in this case, a spirited defense of Bunker Hill reenacted with snowballs. Ticonderoga learns that his uncle’s fugue is actually a self-styled fundraising tour to raise a stake for a “second” transcontinental voyage of discovery—the “first” having been one of the private’s many backyard odysseys with his nephew. Their quest eventually leads them to Monticello, where a bemused Thomas Jefferson informs them that an expedition has already been organized, and two now-famous captains named as its leaders. Kinneson is disappointed but typically undaunted. Ticonderoga’s plan, suggested by Jefferson, to lead his uncle gradually back to Vermont while pretending to strike out westward, quickly goes awry. Uncle True might be a fool, but he’s no dummy.

And off they go, westward ho, sometimes neck and neck with Lewis and Clark and more than once saving the Corps of Discovery’s bacon from hostile Sioux and a roving Spanish “force of terror,” among other threats—entirely uncredited in the official journals, of course. Along the way, they also meet up with an assortment of stalwart Native chieftains and comely maidens as well as real historical characters like Daniel Boone and John Ledyard, nearly (but never quite) managing to get themselves written into the official annals of frontier history.

Until now, that is, and The True Account. Close readers of Mosher’s novel who also happen to be Montana history buffs will notice a number of incidents transposed from life. The story of John Colter, for example, who outraced a party of several hundred Blackfeet warriors barefoot and stark naked across six miles of cactus-stippled prairie, appears not once but twice in Mosher’s book.

My history majoritis flared up a couple times at anachronisms both historical and linguistic—Mosher does a pretty good job of sustaining a period voice in his narrative, but slips up here and there—but rarely for longer than the time it took me to jot a note in the margin. It’s hard to stay mad at a book as guileless as its addle-pated hero, Private True Teague Kinneson.

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