To the Discussion Leader
Kathryn Lasky, Newbery Honor winner and author of more than 40 books for children and adults says, "To me, the whole point of being an artist is being able to get up every morning and reinvent the world." For her first book in the My Name Is America series, the world she chooses to reinvent is the 1804 period of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Through the journal entries of fourteen-year-old Augustus Pelletier, youngsters join the Corps of Discovery as they take up President Thomas Jefferson's challenge to find a Northwest Passage — a river route across the continent through the western mountains, to the Pacific Ocean.
Pelletier's journal is replete with round character portraits of historical figures from William Clark to Sacajawea to Meriwether Lewis. Through word pictures Augustus describes the uncharted world from Missouri on up to North Dakota and then west over to the Pacific Ocean. Along the way readers watch Gus mature, face hardships, and display courage. Readers come to understand how two very different men, Lewis and Clark, could play off of each other's strengths and fill in each other's weaknesses, and together display leadership, ingenuity, negotiation skills, and the discipline necessary to chart an America unknown to all but the Native Americans who helped the Corps along the way.
When your mother dies and your drunken stepfather almost cuts off your ear, it's time to get out. To fourteen-year-old Augustus Pelletier the lure of adventure with Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery, soon to depart from his hometown of St. Charles, is too tempting to resist. But why would Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark want Gus, a scrawny "little kid hardly no bigger than a feed bag?" He'll have to prove himself worthy. So, on May 21, 1804, Gus sets off following the expedition, watching their every move from a safe distance, "shadowing" he calls it.
After walking about 200 miles, Gus makes his presence known to the commanding captain of the Corps of Discovery, Meriwether Lewis, himself. Gus' ability to read and write makes him useful for recording important information about geography and plant and animal life along the way.
As the expedition follows the rivers westward, hoping to find a water route to the Shining Sea (Pacific Ocean), Gus experiences things he never even dreamed about. He sees great herds of buffalo and large flocks of swans. He becomes friends with a prairie dog and witnesses the spectacular northern lights. He becomes good at scientific measurement and taxidermy. He grieves for Sergeant Charley Floyd, his friend and fellow member of the Corps, the first U.S. soldier to die west of the Mississippi. Gus encounters many Indians along the way, but none make so great an impression as fifteen-year-old Sacajawea, the Shoshoni wife of a French trapper. Sacajawea is pregnant when she joins the expedition in November 1804. Three months later she gives birth to a son named Jean Baptiste or "Pomp." With Sacajawea's help the travelers negotiate mountains, rapids, and waterfalls. At one point Sacajawea is reunited with her Shoshoni people and has a tearful meeting with her brother and her childhood best friend. The expedition pushes on through the treacherous Columbia River Falls until they can travel no further. They have finally reached the Pacific Ocean and, in the six months, have traveled approximately 4,124 miles. Gus is overwhelmed. He writes, "I cannot believe how far I have come. I have crossed mountains and paddled many a long river. I have held a baby and made a friend named Bird Woman. I have learned my true place standing on earth using the stars, .. and now I have come to the Shining Sea."
Thinking About the Book
- Why did President Thomas Jefferson ask Congress to fund the Lewis and Clark Expedition? What was the goal of the expedition?
- Other than Augustus, which character do you think is the most important in this journal? Explain your choice.
- If you had to choose one of the following words that you think best describes what this book is about, would you chose dreams, home, or courage? Why?
- Captain Lewis and Captain Clark are depicted as very different kinds of men. Why do you think they got along so well? Which one would you likely be friends with? Why?
- On August 27, 1805, Augustus writes that Sacajawea was "forever caught between worlds, not quite alive and not quite dead." What does Augustus mean? Do you agree with him?
- It is often said that "knowledge is power." How is this statement true in the life of Augustus Pelletier?
- Divide the following terms among the members of your discussion group. Ask each person to define the term and explain its importance in The Journal of Augustus Pelletier.
- On September 25, 1804, Augustus writes that he learned one of the most important lessons in his life. What was that lesson? Ask each member of your discussion group to recall a time when he/she learned the importance of this lesson.
- In your discussion group, vote on the most memorable scene in the journal. Compare your results with other groups. Which scene turns out to be the most memorable? Why? At the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition there were no cameras to record the scenery, although people like Gus sketched or painted the plant and animal life and landscape.
- Read the journal entry for March 6, 1805. Have a discussion explaining why Augustus is described as being "like the fat man eating buffalo hump while complaining about being hungry and skinny."
- Gus' journal ends on November 14, 1805, the day the Corps of Discovery reaches the Pacific Ocean. Do you think Gus returned with the Corps to St. Louis? Read about the trip back here. Write several entries of Gus' journal about his return trip.
- Sacajawea is characterized as a bright, capable, sensitive, and courageous person. Find out more about Sacajawea. What new facts do you learn about her? Take a look at the one-dollar "gold" coin. Does the image of Sacajawea on the coin match the picture you've had of her as you've read Gus's journal? Why or why not?
Discussion Guide written 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.