Colin Sargent is a playwright and author of three books of poetry. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he has been awarded the Maine individual artist fellowship in literature and earned a Stonecoast MFA in creative writing. His screenplay Montebello Ice is under option at Gideon Films. The Portland, Maine resident is founding editor and publisher of award-winning Portland Magazine as well as a board member of the literacy organization Maine Reads. Museum of Human Beings is his first novel. According to Publishers Weekly, “Playwright Sargent’s debut novel is a stylish look at the fate of Sacagawea’s baby son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau… An impressively rounded portrait of the laid-back, introspective, nomadic Baptiste, this novel will satisfy fans of American history.”
“Sacagawea’s Son,” Maine Sunday Telegram, Audience Section, Books: December 21
By Meredith Goad
Take a closer look at the golden dollar coin that bears the image of Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian guide who led explorers Merriweather Lewis and William Clark across the early 19th-century American wilderness. Strapped to her back is her infant son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau.
Ever wonder what became of that baby boy?
That’s the premise of Colin Sargent’s new work of historical fiction, “Museum of Human Beings” (McBooks Press Inc., $23.95). Sargent, a 54-year-old poet, playwright and publisher of Portland Magazine, researched the facts of Jean-Baptiste’s life to create a portrait of what life was like for Sacagawea’s son during and after the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Sacagawea’s son initially ended up in Europe, a traveling curiosity who was put on display for scientists and dignitaries. He was highly intelligent, speaking several languages fluently and performing at times as a concert musician. Eventually, he came back to the New World, where he became a trapper, guide-interpreter and miner, rubbing elbows with the likes of Kit Carson and James Bridger.
“Museum of Human Beings” has received good reviews nationally, and has attracted interest from the American Indian community. Last week, Sargent traveled to Washington, D.C., to do a reading at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
On his Web site, www.museumof humanbeings.com, Sargent has posted video of a friend, author Jaed Coffin, acting out a more modern interpretation of Charbonneau.
Sargent lives in Portland with his wife, Dr. Nancy Sargent, who has a dental practice in Falmouth Foreside. His son, Colin S. Sargent, is a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University.
We spoke with Sargent at his Portland Magazine office on Congress Street. Here is an edited version of the conversation:
Q: Was it difficult to switch to fiction after working on the magazine for so many years?
A: The Internet has been very helpful, because arcane journal entries, where someone might surface in a voting record or a birth and death record or an education record, now make people sort of appear on the Internet like a message on an eight ball. Library collections and their archives are more available. And so there are all these individual points, kind of like stars.
What I like about fiction is the human projection, where someone would look at these disassociated stars in the sky. Someone writing fiction might say hey, that looks like the Big Dipper. I just live for the Big Dipper. I respect the facts, and it’s an interesting process going from fact through the imagination so that the fiction rings true.
Q: Was the German prince who took Jean-Baptiste around Europe really such a nasty character in real life?
A: A lot of times, Ockham’s Razor as a decision-making tool is used, and that is “Don’t disregard the most obvious solution possible.” If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. So often people who aren’t in power are subjected to profiling that amounts to Ockham’s Razor decision-making, but not so often has it been applied to America’s Founding Fathers or to (people like) Duke Paul. It’s on record what a great scientist Duke Paul is, but if in fact he takes more than one Native American teenager, a boy, through the capitals of Europe, and does it again and again, then maybe he has a thing for young boys.
William Clark is another example of that. In his journals, there’s no mention of him having intimate relations with Native American maidens as the Lewis and Clark expedition went across, but there is evidence of him again and again encouraging his men to take the Venetian glass beads that they were using to trade with and trade them for sexual favors.
A fact that sort of pins this up is that when they’re studying now the progress of the Lewis and Clark expedition across the United States, one of the ways they can ascertain that the Lewis and Clark group was there, there are larger deposits of mercury in the soil where they built latrines, and that’s because mercury was considered one of the cures for syphilis. So there’s this bright glowing trail of mercury when you’re following the Lewis and Clark expedition across the country. And that’s a story that didn’t make it into the children’s schoolbooks.
Q: For obvious reasons.
A: For Sacagawea, there’s this persistent myth that she lived into her 80s, with the wind streaming through her hair at Wind River Reservation. Even the native Shoshone person who came to one of my readings was convinced that was the way it happened. But in 1812, she disappears from the Clark compound, and dies of putrid fever months later (at age 25) at a far-flung fort in the wilderness.
Also, when we wonder about that extraordinary ability of Sacagawea to find her way back across the continental United States, and when we romanticize that as some extra power, we are really dismissing her. What happened was, when she was something like 12, she was abducted from her tribe and dragged east by two warring tribes for thousands of miles. So when she took Lewis and Clark back the other way, she had a horrible, personal Trail of Tears.
Q: It sounds like you gained a lot of respect for her and what she went through.
A: Yes, because she made decisions and she made negotiations. They weren’t black and white, and they weren’t all beautiful. She would make compromising decisions in the interest of her son. She wanted her son to be educated like a great white gentleman, and I think made all of the sacrifices in his interest. She felt this crushing need for her son to impress Clark on his terms.
Q: How did you originally become interested in the story of Jean-Baptiste?
A: From my earliest times, I always wondered, what happened to this little boy? What happened to the expedition papoose? He was a photo op. When we look at the Sacagawea coin or any of the other images of Sacagawea that take us back to elementary school, we’re treated to a defining moment that shows her shining serenely at the Pacific’s edge, wearing this iconic fashion accessory on her back, sort of the way Paris Hilton is photographed with Tinker Bell tucked under her arm.
The photo op is very comforting until you wonder, was there a cost to Princess Sacagawea for betraying her knowledge of the woods to the benefit of these great explorers, Lewis and Clark, and isn’t there a second person on this coin? And so Baptiste’s story just cried out to be told.
Q: And he goes on to become quite a mountain man, doesn’t he, hanging out with some of the big explorers and trappers of the day?
A: Absolutely. He repeats Sacagawea’s stunt of taking powerful white men across the continent when he took the Mormon Battalion across the desert. It sounds so biblical, especially with a name like Jean-Baptiste. He was the chief guide taking the Mormon Battalion across to populate California before Mexico could claim it, resulting in California statehood. And so he stood on the edge of the Pacific in middle age, no doubt thinking “Well mom, here I am. I’ve done what you’ve done. Have I betrayed Eden, too?”
Copyright © 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers
From an interview on Museum of Human Beings
The York Independent: Arts & Leisure – The Arts Scene
By Jennifer L. Saunders
YORK HARBOR – Get to know acclaimed writer Colin Sargent during the next installment of the York Art Association’s new series, which features some of the best authors from the Seacoast region and its surrounding communities.
On Nov. 13, Sargent, who is a playwright and poet, and is also the publisher of Portland Magazine, will read from his first novel, “Museum of Human Beings,” the story of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the child of Sacagawea.
During a recent interview, Sargent spoke of his inspiration for this work of fiction that is steeped in historical fact.
“All the images of Lewis and Clark’s famous Shoshone guide, from elementary history books to the coin in currency today, are titled ‘Sacagawea.’ But there are two human beings in those pictures… Sacagawea is always portrayed with her ‘papoose,’ who appears to be a fashion accessory as central to her legend as a flag is to Betsy Ross… I found myself wondering, who is that boy? Whatever happened to him?”
From there, Sargent explained that he began hunting through archive entries that mention Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who lived from 1805 to 1866.
As a result of that search, Sargent said, “a picture of a man struggling to emerge from the shadow of his celebrity mom began to take shape, and I felt a real connection – Baptiste is a touchstone for so many of us who are searching for our own place in the world.”
Sargent’s next task was to work the biographical and historical information he gathered into a work of fiction. The facts known about Baptiste include his education in St. Louis as the adopted son of William Clark after his mother’s death, followed by his appearance in Duke Paul of Wurttemberg’s journal when he was a teenager, Sargent explained.
“Facts gather value when connected together by a narrative. A strictly literal viewer doesn’t have the eyes to see The Big Dipper, just dissociated stars,” Sargent said. “I had to understand, for example, how Baptiste’s adopted father, the explorer William Clark, was so indifferent to Baptiste’s fortunes that he palmed him off on a German nobleman with Duke Paul’s reputation as a sexual tourist. Then, I wanted to understand why the boy agreed to go.”
Describing his love of reading itself as the “out-of-body” experience that happens when immersed in a compelling story, Sargent said he strove to write as a “reader,” asking questions throughout the writing process to stimulate his own imagination as though he, too, were experiencing the places and times of his characters.
“I spent so much time trying to feel things like Baptiste Charbonneau so I could share them with readers that there were a couple of times while commuting to work in Portland when I caught myself looking into the passenger seat of my car expecting to see him riding beside me,” he said.
Sargent said elements of Baptiste’s history troubled him, while others were inspirational.
“Sacagawea was maybe the first true celebrated working mother, a New World Madonna. When I found out her son was paraded through the capitals of Europe by a German prince as a half-gentleman, half-animal, I was hurt for him, but then I came to admire Baptiste as a person who was able to survive and find his dignity, even through a youth of drug abuse, sexual negotiation and humiliation in a savage world,” he explained. “At court, Baptiste mastered at least seven languages, performed as an accomplished musician and acquired a keen sense of irony, but it was in the New World he learned to appreciate that all experiences, horrific or joyous, make a whole person. Baptiste is a contemporary, complex character who led his own riveting life of thrills, adventures, exquisite loss and, finally, love. He wasn’t just a witness to the Voyage of Discovery. Straddling several cultures at once and adapting the best of each to find meaning in his life, Baptiste was an agent of the coming of age of America.”
Sargent said his inspiration for writing this book came in part from his realization as a magazine publisher that “a person’s life is not defined by a photo-op… in spite of the fact that a 24-hour barrage of headline news can make it seem that way. …. I wanted to liberate Baptiste from reductive history and photo-ops.”
And when it comes to sharing his novel locally, Sargent said he is especially looking forward to the Nov. 13 event.
“York-Ogunquit is a perfect example of how cultures are enriched by layers. York is an English word, and Ogunquit is Native American, but so many of our surnames are French,” he said. “It’s very important to understand what makes us strong and beautiful as a blended whole while still celebrating the individual ingredients. It’s also exciting that, in so many ways, we’re learning to see history with new eyes.”
The novel has won praise from many acclaimed authors and publications, including Publishers Weekly, and just one month after his upcoming visit to York, Sargent will travel to Washington, D.C., where the “Museum of Human Beings” will be heard on a national stage.
“I’m going to be reading from ‘Museum of Human Beings’ at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 13,” Sargent explained, adding that when he thinks of Baptiste, “I know he’ll be there with me. Part of him will no doubt be asking me, ‘What comforting version of myself would you like me to play now?’”
Sargent’s Nov. 13 visit to town will begin at 7 p.m. at the York Art Association in York Harbor. Enjoy wine and cheese while spending an evening with Colin and Nancy Sargent as he shares more of his first novel. For more information on this and other association events, call the YAA at 363-4049.
To learn more about Sargent’s book, visit www.museumofhumanbeings.com.