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By Tom Pantera, Published October 03 2004

200 years, 42,000 titles: Lewis & Clark books proliferate as milestone anniversary arrives

If you want to read about the Lewis and Clark expedition, be prepared to enter a literary territory seemingly as vast as the uncharted lands they explored.

A search for "Lewis and Clark" on Amazon.com reveals more than 42,000 books. They cover everything from general information on the explorers and the Corps of Discovery to specialty works, like recipes used on the trail.

Even traditional booksellers are surprised at the breadth and depth of available works on the explorers and their journey.

"What we did find surprising was the number (of titles) that were out there," says Dorothy Loeks, manager of Fargo's Barnes and Noble store. "There was a wide range of interest, from children's books through adults. It spreads the whole age range."

Loeks says the gold standard for Lewis and Clark books remains "Undaunted Courage" by Stephen Ambrose, which came out in 1997.

"It's been out for a long time, but it just continues to sell all the time," she says.

In popularity at the Fargo Barnes and Noble store, Ambrose's work was joined earlier this year by "A Vast and Open Plain," a new collection of Lewis and Clark's journals in North Dakota edited by Clay Jenkinson, a noted Lewis and Clark historian.

Speaking by phone from Reno, Nev., where he spends much of the year, Jenkinson says the current rage for Lewis and Clark books will have a good effect for a long time.

"There are so many new books on Lewis and Clark that are outstanding," Jenkinson says. "There are books that are of immense importance to the future of Lewis and Clark studies that have been produced in the last year or two."

Some of those books have a different take on the expedition, while others highlight aspects that haven't been studied much before.

Among the former is "Exploring Lewis and Clark" by Thomas Slaughter, which is "very critical of Lewis and Clark from a certain point of view," he says. "It invites us all to reread the original journals and sort of wash our mind clean of what we thought we knew about Lewis and Clark."

Other new books spotlight important but little-known aspects of the Corps of Discovery, Jenkinson says. For example, "The Fate of the Corps" by Larry E. Morris traces the lives of every one of the party's members after the expedition. "Up until now, there is almost nothing about this. It kind of finishes up the story."

Other lesser-known people in the story have become subjects of their own books. Jenkinson singles out Tracy Potter's "Sheheke: Mandan Indian Diplomat," about one of the expedition's most important Indian allies, as being particularly good.

Scientific books

Books also have come out that spotlight various scientific aspects of the tour, like the plants and animals the expedition found in the West. "Geology of the Lewis and Clark Trail in North Dakota" by John W. Hoganson and Edward C. Murphy is a particularly useful example of those, Jenkinson says.

Loeks says the bicentennial also has spurred some particularly good children's books about the expedition. "Sacagawea" by Lise Erdrich has proven particularly popular.

"It is a beautiful book, just great pictures in it," Loeks says. "Very nicely done."

But Jenkinson cautions that many of the substandard Lewis and Clark books are aimed at kids.

Many of those "repeat myths and make no attempt to tell the truth," he says. "The young people's literature has been weak."

Not all the offenders are children's books. Some are simply aimed at exploiting the bicentennial, he says, like one tome that "is just using the bicentennial cachet to write a fairly typical book on leadership for businessmen."

Readers who want to separate the good from the bad in Lewis and Clark scholarship have to do their own exploring, combing through annotated bibliographies in search of valuable information, Jenkinson says. Many of the most valuable books are aimed at academics and aren't as heavily promoted as more popular works, he says.

"What is popular is not necessarily rigorous or scholarly and what is scholarly is not necessarily readable," he says.

General to specific

David Borlaug, president of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, says the number of Lewis and Clark books now out enables readers to work from general understanding of the story to more specific topics.

"That's what people do, they just keep going deeper and deeper into the story," Borlaug says.

Readers can start with the Ambrose book for an overall picture of the Corps of Discovery, then proceed to James Ronda's "Lewis and Clark Among the Indians" to get more of the American Indian perspective. Then they can read about specific Indians, like Sheheke.

Or they can go other directions, Borlaug says. "Probably the book right now that's got the biggest buzz going is the definitive biography of William Clark," he says. That book, "William Clark and the Shaping of the West" by Landon Y. Jones, contains only one chapter on the expedition but then details Clark's later life.

And for children, there are books that feature not just Sakakawea, but also figures like Seaman, the dog that accompanied the explorers.

Other newer volumes talk about how Clark's slave, York, had a wife back home. That wasn't known until just a couple of years ago, when it was discovered by an author researching a collection of letters from Clark to his brother.

Not all booksellers say they're seeing an explosion of Lewis and Clark books.

Greg Danz of Sandbroz Variety in downtown Fargo says while there still are books coming out, the fad peaked in the last year.

"They've almost exhausted the possibilities," he says, although individual books like "Undaunted Courage" and Erdrich's "Sakakawea" continue to sell steadily.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541