I feel like I’ve been on a long (and sometimes arduous) expedition. I started reading The Mapmaker’s Wife on Quatorze Juillet, the French national holiday, and it took me more than f i v e weeks to finish those 350 pages of non-fiction by Robert Whitaker! I could have lost a lot of weight during this undertaking, but thankfully I didn’t (according to a fact on page 261):
Because women have a higher percentage of body fat, they tend to outlast men in starvation situations.
That information might come in handy ;) So, who is the mapmaker’s wife? Isabel Gramesón, a Peruvian girl who married Jean Godin (geographer in a 18th century scientific expedition at the equator), when she was thirteen years old. The title suggests the book is all about her — but it isn’t. For the most part it’s the story of the French-Spanish quest that meant to solve the Newtonian – Cartesian dispute about the shape of the earth: flattened at the poles or elongated, with a ‘waist’ at the equator. More details about this mission can be found in Monalisa(a)’s journal entry of the book — her enthusiasm made me participate in this Bookcrossing bookring (that is almost at the end of its journey).
Even though the main subject is not what you expect beforehand, The Mapmaker’s Wife is an interesting read. Scientists of the Enlightment still had lots to discover! Jean Godin and his group were the first foreigners allowed by the Spanish rulers to explore the New World in 1735. So their curiosity went way beyond their main objective: measuring a degree of latitude at the equator. Their expedition took 9 years — and even (much) longer for those members of the team that couldn’t return home immediately.
I sometimes felt that the author identified too much with the ‘scientific omnivores’ of that time. There were soooo many details holding up the story. In example: a long way into the history I really didn’t feel the need to hear extensively about Riobamba city. I wanted to learn more about the characters (some of whom I didn’t get to know very well at all). Let’s say that in his enthusiasm, Whitaker was very thorough ;)
This might also be the cause of why Isabel’s story only really starts somewhere in the second half of the book. And that is when it all gets very exciting. After having been separated from her husband for about 20 years, Isabel has to conquer the Amazon rain forest by herself to be able to join Jean in French Guyana and move to France with him. At times her journey left me in complete horror. And pretty astonished in the end! It is a moving tale, well worth reading.
Maybe I would have finished the book quicker had I read it in my native tongue (Dutch) — and maybe then I would have been less bored occasionally because of the scientific descriptions that I didn’t all ‘get’ but couldn’t find worth looking up? It did trigger associations with some favorite cinema though: Longitude, a tv-series about the 18th century quest to find the key to determining longitude, and one of my most cherished movies about a repenting slave trader in South America: The Mission. Attentive readers may notice that Jeremy Irons plays a main part in both ;) I will definitely watch The Mission again on a rainy day this autumn! I advise you to do the same :)
But for now: if you want to get a feeling of the adventures in The Mapmaker’s Wife, you can explore the book’s website where you’ll find reproductions of prints made by the expedition members, a copy of Jean Godin’s letter in which he takes 7000 words to describe his wife’s perils and, last but not least, a slide show of the author, Robert Whitaker, retracing Isabel’s steps in 2002.
Myself, I am going on another journey with a female traveler in the New World: next I will be reading Away, by Amy Bloom.