three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A-Champlains DreamThe Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Washington’s Crossing ( 4 of 5 Stars May/June 2004), Paul Revere’s Ride, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in American History, and Liberty and Freedom ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2005), historian David Hackett Fischer marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec, New France, with Champlain’s Dream.

The Topic: The French influence in North America can be traced in large part to one man, Samuel de Champlain, "the father of New France." For three decades at the beginning of the 17th century, Champlain was the central figure in the founding and the operation of Quebec, an enterprise that required not only an admirable willingness to face the unknown in a new territory (despite not knowing how to swim, Champlain made 27 successful crossings of the Atlantic at a time when every voyage was fraught with danger), but a talent for lobbying royal support in the salons of Paris. A Renaissance man—Champlain was a writer, a cartographer, a naturalist, a politician, and an artist—his attitude toward the treatment of indigenous peoples is notable, and Fischer aspires to "write about both American Indians and Europeans with maturity, empathy, and understanding."
Simon & Schuster. 834 pages. $40. ISBN: 1416593322

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Following a long string of revisionist histories of the Spanish, Jamestown and Mayflower settlers, [Champlain’s Dream] signals a new perspective on the European impact on the Americas. … [The book] is an important addition to the debate over the European settlement of the Americas, and an inspiring and bittersweet ‘what if’ in the history of colonial subjugation and exploitation." David Walton

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Fischer’s latest work is not quite as novel or daring [as his award-winning earlier work] but, in a smaller way, it helps to shed light on what, to most of us, remains a relatively obscure corner of our continent’s history: the settlement by the French in what became Canada. … Yet even when he writes books of doorstop heft, as he invariably does, his plain, unadorned style is never dry or boring, in part because he so often sprinkles intriguing ideas into the narrative." Max Boot

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Champlain’s Dream is as ruminative as it is action-filled. What Mr. Fischer has really done is to sketch a character whose virtues—prodigious curiosity, respect for other cultures, a sense of fairness—he considers exemplary." Bill Kauffman

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Champlain’s Dream is a comprehensive, exhaustively researched, yet always lively biography. … The author is less persuasive in his insistence on the primacy of Champlain’s humanism as a historical force." Neal Salisbury

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"Fischer is so admiring of his subject that he presents Champlain as more monument than man. … [His] failure to give pace to his story or life to his protagonist is a disservice not only to the reader but to Champlain, whose own writing is rich with adventure and keen observation." Tony Horwitz

Critical Summary

Regarding the history of European settlement in North America, David Hackett Fischer has been around the block. It is no surprise, then, that Champlain’s Dream speaks with authority on the relatively unknown biography of one of the period’s leading figures. Fischer’s solid, comprehensive—and ultimately sympathetic—portrayal of the enigmatic Champlain rekindles the consequences of European settlement in the Americas. Throughout, the author maintains a professional interest in separating fact from fiction: "Because he is a rigorous historian, not a historical novelist, [Fischer] is always scrupulous about drawing a firm line between facts and inferences," claims the reviewer for the New York Times Book Review. With the exception of the Washington Post’s critic, who cites poor "skills as a narrative historian," critics agree that Fischer’s effort is both important and admirable.