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Sunday, December 04, 2011


Champlain's Dream: The European Founding of North America
by David Hackett Fischer
p.  2008
Simon & Schuster

  I don't know if there are more then a handful of history professors who can swagger into the office of a major US publishing company and say, "Seven hundred page biography of the french dude who founded "New France" in the 17th Century... with about 20 color prints... GO!"

  But the fact that Champlain's Dream exists is a testament to the weight that David Hackett Fischer carries in the academic/popular publishing industry.  For example, his last couple forays into historical biography concerned what I would call two "red meat" subjects for American History fans: Washington's Crossing (2006) (Part of the Pivotal Moments in American History series) and Paul Revere's Ride(1995).

  Those are the type of subjects that move units in non-fiction publishing, as witnessed by their continuing sales strength. (1)  On the other hand Champlain's Dream is about a French guy from the 17th century, which is way, way, way outside of the interest field for most of the people who would pick up Paul Revere's Ride paperback at the local Barnes and Noble.

  The fact that Fischer chose to write this book is a testament to his strength as an intellectual.  An effective purveyor of ideas is someone who conveys those ideas to an audience forcefully and with style, and by both measures, Fischer has to be one of the primary operators in the field of academic history.  In this book, Fischer doesn't just write a 500 page biography of the man, he provides a 50 page Appendix concerning the 400 year  historiography of books about Champlain and another fifty pages of End Notes citing many of the books discussed in the historiography appendix.

   Throughout Champlain's Dream Fischer shows himself at the top of his game: combining an understanding of narrow technical literature with an interesting ethical perspective and a mesmerizing command of narrative.    Fischer's break out hit was 1989's, Albion's Seed.  Albion's Seed persuasively described colonial America as the combining of several regional cultures with their roots in different geographic parts of England.   Champlain's Dream represents a kind of extension of those themes into Canada.   Champlain's Dream is different from Albion's Seed in that the technical discussion is cloaked in what is putatively supposed to be a straight-forward biography of  a Canadian "Founding Father."

   Towards the end of this 500 page plus biography, Fischer describes the result of Champlain's Dream as the creation of 3 francophone cultures,  Quebecois, Acadian and Metis.   The Quebecois are the main-line French settlement line, the Acadian's were originally in the coastal area of Canada, the east coast, and they were more from South Western France- and ended up migrating into Louisiana (Cajuns.)

  Finally, and most intriguingly, there are the Metis, a combination of French and Indian cultures, language and customs.  This is a culture that is less studied/understood then the other two- and they were certainly hanging out on the Great Plains and Great Lakes period for the first couple centuries of the United States.  It's fair to say that the Metis have gotten the shaft from American historians.  

  Champlain himself shows many admirable qualities, particularly in his relationship with Native Peoples.  New France was a disease free, almost conflict free oasis in North American for at least a century and Champlain deserves that credit.


(1)  For example, Washington's Crossing, published 2006, is 17,000 over-all in "books," #11 in the sub-sub-category of "Books About George Washington," and #40 in History/Americas/United States/Founding Fathers.  Paul Revere's ride is 40,000 over all and #45 in that same Founding Fathers sub-category.

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