Clark has an affinity for human dramas, an historian’s eye, and the imagination to recreate characters and bring them alive in their passions, fears and conceits. With the same powerful prose that defined The Nature of Monsters, Savage Lands takes place in an entirely different scenario: the struggling French-owned colony of Louisiana in 1704.
Drawing inspiration from those years of turmoil and the “casket girls,” impoverished young women of marriageable age sent to Louisiana as wives for the colonists, Clark crafts a remarkable vision, retreating in time to a France roiling with opportunists and desperate people harboring dreams in a new world.
While most of the twenty-three young women in Savage Lands comfort one another with gossip on the long sea voyage from Paris to the shores of the colony, Elisabeth Savaret disdains the foolish chatter of women, keeping her own counsel. And when Elisabeth is chosen as wife to Jean-Claude Babelon, a French Canadian ensign for the shabby colony army, she falls blindly in love.
Far from Paris and the wild trading on the stock market for shares in the Mississippi Company, reality is far more brutal for the colonists. Theirs is a life of penury, eking out the few crops to sustain them while waiting for ships from France that never arrive, trading with local Indian tribes to survive the punishing winters, and barricading themselves against the raids of unfriendly tribes bribed with rifles by the English.
While the evolution of the colony and its hardships form the background of this novel, Elisabeth’s unbridled passion for her new husband is the crux of the story, the decisions she makes while in thrall to Jean Claude and the consequences of her actions. Beautifully defined against a brutal and unforgiving landscape, Elisabeth Savaret is an impressive character. Fiercely independent, she gauges her husband’s emotions carefully like a wary animal, ever conscious of his needs. As he sets out each spring to negotiate with the tribes, trade and promote a tenuous peace, Elisabeth hibernates, awaiting his return, absorbing the blows of marriage with constancy: “I have never seen a greater monster or miracle in the world than myself.”
In contrast to Elisabeth, young August, a cabin boy, is left by his commander to learn the languages of the tribes and report what he can of the threats to the French by the encroaching English, who have their eyes on the new world as well. August is drawn into the novel from the periphery yet becomes critical in the tiny circle of intimacy that Elisabeth and Jean-Claude create. A terrible betrayal will scar both Elisabeth and August, the consequences reverberating throughout the years and bringing their destinies into contact again and again.
As the colony struggles against famine, the encroachment of the English and the uneasy alliances with the Indians, speculation runs rampant in France, the contrast between fantasy and reality played out in a swampy Louisiana. Elisabeth Savaret is trapped by her devotion to Jean-Claude, August caught as well in their web. Dramatic, taut and heartbreaking, a nation is begun by the brave and the foolish souls who cling to the soil of a new world, Clark proving without a doubt her capacity for understanding the most complicated facets of human nature.