“Beautiful, haunting, mesmerizing, yet disturbing in the way that pure history is itself disturbing; people are not evil, but they treat one another in evil ways. I wanted to hold Sacagewea and Baptiste close to my heart…”–Goodreads
Fashionista Piranha Features Museum of Human Beings “Because A Good Book Is The Perfect Fashion Accessory”
“Colin Sargent has pulled this child–usually regulated to a footnote in a book about Lewis, Clark or his famous mother–out of the past and written Baptiste’s life story in his first novel…interesting…and quite entertaining to read.”–Fashionista Piranha Review, Book Blog For the full review, visit www..fashion-piranha.livejournal.com
ForeWord Magazine, May/June 2009 issue, page 26
“Different Worlds: First Time Novelists Transport Readers”
How many novels by first-time authors are published each year? Do not seek to know the answers,
Grasshopper, but to understand the questions. What does “published” mean these days, or even “author”?
Is James Patterson an author? Is Ron Blagojevich? Ah, let’s not dwell. Here, we’ve collected a bookshelf of
literary fiction by writers who can now, in all seriousness, call themselves authors.
Museum of Human Beings
History buffs and elementary-aged children
alike are enthralled with the Corps
of Discovery’s 1803 transcontinental
crossing undertaken by Meriwether
Lewis, William Clark, and crew. Scholars have increasingly
recognized the young Shoshone woman Sacajawea
as a pivotal leader in this expedition. Here, Jean-
Baptiste Charbonneau, the infant on Sacajawea’s back,
takes his own personal voyage of self-discovery as he is
fostered by Clark in St. Louis, supported by Duke Paul
of Württemberg in Europe, and haunted by his mother’s
spirit in the American wilderness.
Playwright and poet Colin Sargent resides in
Portland, Maine, where he founded Portland magazine.
His sophisticated use of language permeates this
tale. For example, the color blue is used to create a
path and stimulate memory: From the descriptions
of the first sighting of the Pacific Ocean to the final
viewing of an arrowhead around a baby’s neck, the
color travels alongside Baptiste. “[Sacajawea’s] rib
cage, so like a bird’s, bore the blue stigmata of your
father’s most recent attentions,” Clark tells Baptiste.
Sacajawea’s blue Lemhi beaded belt indicates her
descent from a royal family, and Baptiste’s baby sister
Lizette is wrapped in the same blue cloth that had
originally warmed him.
Sargent explores language in another way at the
opening of each chapter by displaying a Plains Indian
sign language word along with its description. For
example, to indicate “alone,” a person should “…hold
right hand palm up in front of neck. Move outward in
As Baptiste roams figuratively and literally, his
two father-figures torment him: the distant William
Clark, whom he initially strives to emulate, and the
alcoholic Toussaint Charbonneau, whom he cannot
escape. The age-old struggle to find true identity by
testing different worlds becomes unique in this debut
novel that belongs with the best of historical fiction.
Beth Hemke Shapiro
The Local, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Get Lit, by Michelle Dover
“The Amazing Adventures of Human Beings”
Yes, yes, we all love the founding fathers of the United States of America. Their biographies always have a hold list at the library when they arrive from the publishers. Authors do a brilliant job of recreating these men’s lives through the plethora of documents left behind.
Ask yourself: Was my great, great, great grandma perched on the end of her rocking chair worshipping the founding fathers? Was that same grandma working her knitting needles impatiently waiting for news about their latest speech? Remember that great grandma couldn’t even vote, maybe grandma couldn’t even read, maybe grandma didn’t have access to news and information. Maybe grandma was doing the laundry on a rock in the river.
In the last decade more and more readers have turned to historical fiction to fill in the gaps left in history. People want to see their working class immigrant family, their African-Americans ancestors in and out of slavery, women and children.
Historical fiction is a good bet in the publishing industry these days having won some of the major literary awards of the past several years. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, set in 1930s New York; Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (1930s Canada) and Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang (19th century Australia), were the winners of the 2000 and 2001 Booker Prize, respectively.
Also, a growing number of historic novels have become bright stars for publishers over the past few years, and these works have given the field an ever-increasing audience. Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (set in 17th century Delft), Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (set in early 20th century Japan), Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent (set in Biblical times).
For minorities and women historical fiction helps place them in history, thus reclaiming a past that isn’t readily available in the history books.
Dennis Lehane, The Given Day
Set in Boston at the end of the First World War, The Given Day follows the experiences of a family whose lives mirror the political unrest of an America caught between its well-patterned past and an unpredictable future. Coursing through some of the pivotal events of the time—including the Spanish Influenza pandemic—and culminating in the Boston Police Strike of 1919. A compelling narrative, with richly drawn characters.
Sally Gunning, Bound:
A young indentured servant in pre–Revolutionary War Massachusetts escapes her brutal master and begins a new life on Cape Cod. Life, however, is far from simple, and the ensuing drama forces the young girl to grapple with what it means to pursue personal freedom. What’s more, as she struggles to integrate past and present, the era’s sexual politics and religious and political fervor come alive.
Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project
On March 2, 1908, nineteen-year-old Lazarus Averbuch, a recent Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe to Chicago, knocked on the front door of the house of George Shippy, the chief of Chicago police. When Shippy came to the door, Averbuch offered him what he said was an important letter. Instead of taking the letter, Shippy shot Averbuch twice, killing him. When Shippy released a statement casting Averbuch as a would-be anarchist assassin and agent of foreign political operatives, he all but set off a city and a country already simmering with ethnic and political tensions. A provocative, and entertaining novel.
Colin Sargent, Museum of Human Beings
In 1805, Lewis and Clark embarked on one of the most fantastic journeys in American history. For approximately two years, Sacagawea, traveling with her infant son Jean-Baptiste, endured the harsh challenges of the American wilderness as she led the expedition forward. The novel focuses on Jean-Baptiste and his struggle to find his identity. The boy’s education (sponsored by Clark), his travels with European nobility, and his return to his own roots as a guide and explorer are vividly brought to life.
Kathleen Kent, The Heretic’s Daughter
Martha Carrier was one of the first women to be accused, tried and hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts. Like her mother, young Sarah Carrier is bright and willful, openly challenging the small, brutal world in which they live. Often at odds with one another, mother and daughter are forced to stand together against the escalating hysteria of the trials and the superstitious tyranny that led to the torture and imprisonment of more than 200 people accused of witchcraft. This is the story of Martha’s courageous defiance and ultimate death, as told by the daughter who survived.
Book Browse lists Museum of Human Beings among “the top 25 recent hardcover books.”
The popular reader site also features a cover of Museum of Human Beings on the front page on their list of “exceptional historical fiction.”
Son of Sacagawea–Colin Sargent’s debut novel
By Deborah Murphy, Times Record
PORTLAND — In his debut novel, “Museum of Human Beings,” Colin Sargent tells a compelling story of American identity lost and found through the historical figure of Sacagawea’s son. Sargent, an award-winning publisher, playwright, and poet who lives in Portland, will read from and discuss his book today at 12 p.m. at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath.
Sacagawea is a familiar figure in American popular culture: Her image is blazoned on a commemorative gold dollar coin, and her story as the heroic guide of the Lewis and Clark Expedition has been told in countless history books, poems, novels, and even, most recently, in popular children’s movies through her cameo appearances in the “Night at the Museum” comedies.
But the story of her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who is also featured on the dollar coin as an infant carried on his mother’s back, has largely been lost to history.
In “Museum of Human Beings,” Sargent interweaves the fascinating known facts of Baptiste Charbonneau’s life with fictional imaginings into a poetic meditation on race, identity, and personal freedom in America that has resonance today.
Baptiste was a child of mixed parentage: Sacagawea was a Shoshone who was captured in a raid by the Hidatsa tribe in what is now Idaho, and was then either sold to or won in a gambling contest by his father, the French Canadian fur trapper and guide Toussaint Charbonneau.
Baptiste was born shortly after his father was hired by the expedition in 1804; William Clark became fond of Baptiste during that two-year trek from Missouri through the previously uncharted Pacific Northwest and offered to provide for his education afterward. Baptiste was legally signed over to Clark as his ward in 1813, shortly after Sacagawea’s death from an unknown illness at the age of 25.
Sargent’s novel takes its title from the museum of Native American-related artifacts Clark kept at his St. Louis home.
Baptiste, who was educated in the European tradition, longs, in Sargent’s fictional rendering, for the respect and approval of his adoptive parent — attitudes that are not forthcoming from a Clark who is bound by the racial myopia of his day.
“Each high mark he got at school, Baptiste came right home to proudly show his parent, but Clark withdrew further into himself,” Sargent writes.
Baptiste wrestles with anger, despair and self-loathing as he realizes he will never be more than a curiosity in America: “No one expected anything of him, for they considered him a savage and imagined he had no conscience.”
In 1823, Baptiste left Clark with Clark’s blessing to travel through Europe with the German Prince Paul Wilhelm von Wurttemburg, whom he had met at Clark’s home — a decision motivated on Baptiste’s part, in Sargent’s rendering, by a desire to expand his education and acquire a gentility that would finally earn him Clark’s high regard.
For six years, the historical Baptiste did in fact tour Europe with the prince as a kind of living exhibit for Old World inhabitants curious about the “New World” of America, the first Native American so to travel.
It is a difficult passage, in Sargent’s telling, not only because, though he masters multiple languages and becomes an accomplished pianist, Baptiste ultimately fails in his quest for Clark’s approval; but also because the prince sexually abuses Baptiste (in passages definitely not for young adults).
The conclusion of this journey through Europe, both for the fictional and the historical Baptiste, marks not the end but rather the beginning of an even more extraordinary American odyssey.
Baptiste is known to have worked as a trapper for the American Fur Company in the territories of Utah and Idaho; as an army scout, guide and interpreter who traveled with James Beckwourth and John C. Fremont among other legends of the old West, and led the Mormon Battalion from New Mexico to California during the Mexican-American War; and as a government official and gold prospector.
Sargent finds in this peripatetic journey through key moments in American history a moving quest for identity: Baptiste’s initial longing for Clark’s approval turns into a search for his birth father and for his mother’s spirit and remains, and ultimately becomes the mythic search of a man who “tracks his subtler selves into the unknown.”
Sargent’s Baptiste counts “Candide” among his favorite books; as in that book, Sargent weaves actual historical events into a character’s quest for meaning in a way that speaks to both the dark and bright possibilities of human life.
Sargent’s Baptiste suffers grievous personal losses and witnesses the conquest, often through violence, of the American wilderness; the effects of slavery (Clark himself owned slaves); the destruction of natural resources; the loss of culture and ravaging of Native American populations through disease; and the difficult conditions faced by Chinese immigrants in the rapidly-urbanizing California of the 1860s.
But through these often brutal experiences Baptiste also finally comes to the point of grasping the identity he has been searching for — contradicting his father’s counsel that “to be a good tracker … you first have to know what you are looking for.”
Sargent has found, in his richly textured imagining of a singular historical figure, a moving metaphor for a country still struggling to reconcile the often painful past with the unknown, fast-moving, globalized future — yet still presenting opportunities unique in the world, however difficult and hard-won, for individual freedom and transcendence.
From Amazon.com’s Historical Fiction Forum, “Looking for Native American Books” Thread, January 2:
“I second Sherman Alexie. Excellent ironic, funny, heart-breaking stuff about the current situation for Native Americans. Usually he focuses on the tribes of the north west (his own background). Also I second Louise Erdrich–Start with LOVE MEDICINE. Most of her books are set in the same small town and rez in North Dakota, and follow the intertwining fortunes of the whites and Ojibwa there. For a novel that just came out, check out MUSEUM OF HUMAN BEINGS, by Colin Sargent. The novel richly imagines the amazing and tragic life and times of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, Sacagawea’s baby son.”
Starred Review of Museum of Human Beings in Library Journal
Sargent, Colin. Museum of Human Beings. McBooks c.352p. ISBN 978-1-59013-167-1. $23.95. F
In 1805, Lewis and Clark embarked on one of the most fantastic journeys in American history. Even today their expedition of discovery continues to captivate our imagination as well as our fascination with the mysterious Shoshone guide, Sacagawea. For approximately two years, Sacagawea, traveling with her infant son Jean-Baptiste, endured the harsh challenges of the American wilderness as she led the expedition forward. This debut novel, based on historical facts, focuses on Jean-Baptiste and his struggle to find his identity. The boy’s education (sponsored by Clark), his travels with European nobility, and his return to his own roots as a guide and explorer are vividly brought to life. From the beginning to the novel’s spellbinding conclusion, playwright and poet Sargent allows us an intimate glimpse into what could have been the heart of Jean-Baptiste. This memorable novel will captivate all who read it. Highly recommended for all public library historical fiction collections.-Melody Ballard, Pima Cty. P.L., AZ
“Sacagawea’s Son,” Interview with Colin in the Maine Sunday Telegram, Audience Section, Books
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?”