An Interview with Kathryn Lasky about The Journal of Augustus Pelletier: The Lewis and Clark Expedition
Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D.: You've written two Dear America books and two Royal Diaries all featuring female main characters. How was it different writing a story with a male main character? Did the writing of a journal differ from the diaries?
Kathryn Lasky: Well, I guess the obvious answer is that this journal had a lot more physicality in it, a lot more physical action. This is not because boys are more action oriented. It's merely because it was the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the setting was not court life or the streets of New York. Although I must say that in The Diary of Remember Patience Whipple the Mayflower and the Plimoth Plantation offered plenty of physical challenges. But I still feel that these are rather superficial differences. I did not find that writing a diary with a lead male character differed in any essential way from writing one with a female character. They all had the same challenges in terms of attempting to establish an identity, coping with loneliness, friendships, relationships.
RFA & EST: Several times in The Journal of Augustus Pelletier you include quotes from diaries and letters of Lewis and Clark. What role did the actual diaries of men on the Expedition play in your writing of Pelletier's journal?
KL: The diaries were vital. I kept two sets on my lap while I was writing at all times. I really found the version edited by Bernard Devoto very helpful. The role they played was rather straightforward. I could check an exact location of where they were on what day of the expedition. The diaries were also very helpful in letting me know what the weather was like on a particular day. So if it was raining on May 5th, I made it rain in the diary on that day. The weather in Augustus' diary is very closely matched to the actual weather on the trip. I could keep track of what they hunted, what they ate, and also the changing geography and character of the river.
RFA & EST: What surprised you most in your research on Sacajawea and Charbonneau?
KL: I had not realized what a brutal foolish man Charbonneau was. And I don't think I realized how young Sacajawea was and that she was basically an abused young woman.
RFA & EST: Do you view Sacajawea as a tragic figure? You write that she is "like the badger, forever caught between worlds, not quite alive and not quite dead."
KL: That is a very good question, and I have to answer it in terms of my personal perspective on the meaning of tragedy in a person's life. Some might disagree. I think Sacajawea was caught in a series of tragic situations — her kidnapping as a child, her being passed from tribe to tribe, being sold into marriage. However, I never thought of her as a tragic figure. I do not think she was a victim in the way we think of tragic figures. She was essentially an active not a passive person and she had a remarkable capacity for adapting. She was a survivor.
RFA & EST: Throughout the book you mention various remedies, some natural and others manufactured, that the explorers used to cure their diseases and soothe their pain. What was your source for these primitive medicines?
KL: Most of my sources for these remedies came straight out of the Lewis and Clark journals. Dr. Rush was one of the most eminent doctors in America at that time and he provided the expedition with an incredible medical kit. I also discovered some articles in recent medical journals about medicine on the Lewis and Clark expedition that were helpful.
RFA & EST: You portray Lewis and Clark as good friends but very different from one another. Which of these men did you find most interesting? Why?
KL: The most interesting was Lewis. The most appealing was Clark. Lewis was interesting because of his mental illness. He was manic depressive. Manic depressive people often have incredible energy and a slightly skewed but nonetheless valid way of looking at things. And if there is one thing that Lewis did on this trip, it was look. There was not a rock, a bird, a flower that escaped his inquiry. His drawings, I thought, were beautiful. It was Lewis's perspective of this country unfolding before his eyes that just enraptured me.
RFA & EST: If you could ask young readers of Pelletier's journal one question when they finished the book, what would that question be?
KL: Augustus Pelletier had an experience that no one can really repeat today because of television and assorted media. I call this experience First Sight. He and the other members of the Corps of Discovery were the first white people to see this land. His vision had to be pure and untouched because of the absence of television, etc. My question is what does this do to a person to be the first one to see something, to be the first to experience it? I also have a subsidiary but related question. I think the Lewis and Clark Expedition was the greatest undertaking in American History. I think landing a man on the moon pales next to it. I wonder what other people think.
RFA & EST: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading The Journal of Augustus Pelletier?
KL: I guess I would hope that readers would realize that Lewis and Clark's accomplishment was truly monumental. It was not only that they traveled so far and saw so much; it was that they developed a trust among the members of the corps and, in truth, an ideal little democratic society. There were two times during the expedition that a vote was taken concerning certain issues. On both these occasions York, the black slave of Clark, participated in the vote. One must remember that this was sixty years before the Civil War. This expedition was not just one of courage and endurance but one that was marked by incredible creativity, imagination, and the highest moral standards.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.