There are two intertwined storylines in Michael Pritchett’s novel: the story of Meriwether Lewis, his journeys across the U.S. and his bizarre death; and the story of Bill Lewis, a high school teacher writing a biography of the historical Lewis. While the story’s flips between 19th-century and 21st-century characters can be a bit confusing, it is an interesting way to not only recreate the life and times of Captain Lewis but to show the tale’s relevance to today’s modern man.
The old-fashioned language usage when the chapters concern Capt. Lewis makes the reading a bit slow going, although that may not be a bad thing; it encourages the reader to be immersed in the travels and travails faced by the 19th-century Lewis. The modern chapters don’t have that language barrier, of course, although switching back and forth is can be startling. Another drawback is that, given the grand scale of Capt. Lewis’ life and the times in which he lived (some of which is detailed in the novel), the struggles of history teacher Bill Lewis seem rather trivial and mundane. Of course, to the fictional Bill Lewis, his day-to-day life is what he has. He becomes so enmeshed in the ambiguity behind Meriwether Lewis’ death that his own life becomes a despondent echo, leading him to believe that if he can only solve the eons-old mystery he can create some solace for himself.
Certainly, dealing with depression, debt, and alcoholism can resonate with someone from any time or place. In The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis, the correlations between the two men of the story are there to be seen by the reader. Pritchett brings great perception, sympathy, excitement and edification to the modern-day experiences with depression and melancholy. Seen in contrast to the available medical “cures” available in the early 1800s, our modern medicine without doubt brings a greater understanding and acknowledgement of depression. However, Pritchett doesn’t really focus much on modern remedies, instead allowing the reader to watch Bill Lewis descend into his own melancholy to reflect the experiences of Meriwether Lewis in the 1800s.
An enjoyable aspect of this book is the skillful weaving of other real historical characters: the writer Washington Irving; Aaron Burr, and his eccentric daughter Theodosia; and poet Shelley’s widow, Mary. For this reader, the cleverness in telling of Aaron Burr’s bizarre attempt to seize control of the western U.S. and Mexico and become emperor is a great sub-plot. In addition, these sidebar-type characters provide intensity and realism even as the reader understands that they are reading a fictional narration.
Although the story is ostensibly about Meriwether Lewis, Bill Lewis’s life has a way of overtaking the storyline. As we watch Bill struggle with his son who has an eating disorder, a pregnant student, a sexily tempting wife of a friend, and his own marriage, we sense that we are meant to see a pattern of history repeating itself. Pritchett comes out early on in the book as being of the belief that Capt. Lewis committed suicide, something that has not ever been fully proven. Nevertheless, the rhythm of the book focuses our attention on the long-term affects of depression and how, even in modern times, the world can seem so overwhelming as to make suicide seem to be a viable option. The book really doesn’t seem to really deal with modern solutions to the age-old problem, though, and it may be of some concern to the enlightened reader that Pritchett allows his modern character to wallow so unrelentingly in the slough of despond without medical intervention.
If you don’t know much about Lewis and Clark, and have not read any nonfiction about their remarkable journeys and experiences, this book will act as impetus for you to read more. The clever crisscross of fact and fiction make The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis exciting and dramatic reading, even though the elements of depression and personal trauma may make it a difficult book to finish. It is a remarkable first novel, and one can only hope that Michael Pritchett grows in talent and stature to keep pace with the standard his own first book has set for him.