A group of French cartographers hoped to capture the attention of European intellectuals and scientists in 1735, when they navigated the Amazon in hopes of proving beyond a doubt the shape of the Earth. Certainly their work was groundbreaking and historic; further, they were able to document a variety of unique plant and animal species. As fate would have it, the Frenchmen were eclipsed over twenty years after their expedition by Isabelle Grameson.
This genteel and educated Peruvian woman set out in search of the husband she had been separated from for over twenty years: one of the original members of the cartography party, Jean Godin. It was Isabel, after all, who was the darling of the Europeans for her courageous journey over the Andes and along the Amazon River in her quest to be reunited with her mate.
Political events conspired to separate the couple until, finally, in 1776, Isabel heard a rumor that her husband was indeed alive and living in French Giana. On October 1, 1769, Isabel set out on her fateful journey toward the man she had not seen for twenty years. The rather naive Isabel began with more than adequate provisions of food and an excess of luxurious garments and jewels that she planned on taking to France. Two of her brothers and a nephew also accompanied her.
Soon the jungle exerted its dominance over the party, and after a series of unexpected travails, Isabel found herself stranded deep in the Amazon with only her brothers and nephews and no supplies whatsoever. All tragically died of starvation but for Isabel, who found an unexpected will to live, wandering for weeks in the jungle while her village assumed her dead. Some friendly natives rescued the destitute survivor; once she was able, along with some native guides, Isabel continued her incredible journey until eventually being reunited with Jean.
Isabel's ordeal was extraordinary; she did what few men were able to accomplish, but the fact that she survived at all is a testament to her will to survive. The couple spent the final years of their marriage in rural France, content to live quietly together. This heroic adventure captured the imagination of eighteenth century Europeans.
But nothing can be taken from the accomplishments of the French cartographers on their decade-long survey, who showed extraordinary courage in the pursuit of scientific material. They suffered political setbacks and personality conflicts, as well as an eye-opening experience in the treatment of the natives by the Portuguese and Spanish, who used the natives for slave labor, not to mention the insects, reptiles and vampire bats that constantly bedeviled them.
There is an enormous amount of information in The Mapmaker's Wife. Higgins provides a number of maps and illustrations, and impressive published documents and letters. The first part of the book hints at Isabel's coming ordeal but carefully lays the groundwork for the original journey by the French cartographers and the difficulties they faced. By the time Isabel begins her own trek, the reader has ample evidence of the danger that awaits her. Most startling is the successful journey of this lone woman against the formidable obstacles of the Amazonian terrain.