Friday, September 11, 2009

Museum of Human Beings by Colin Sargent

Museum of Human Beings by Colin Sargent

2008 McBooks Press

Lately I have found myself displeased with the quality of book I am finding in the library or, when funds allow, in the bookstore. There don't seem to be anymore books that touch my heart, that make me feel as if I have found a kindred spirit. There don't seem to be very many books that I would read and reread over and over until I have almost every line memorized.I was wrong. MUSEUM OF HUMAN BEINGS touched me in the same way that Atlas Shrugged or The Handmaid's Tale has. I read this book everywhere. I read it in the doctor's office, at football practice, even in the car while stuck in traffic. I carried this book in my purse for almost two weeks because I liked to read certain passages over and over.

MUSEUM OF HUMAN BEINGS is the fictionalized biography of Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, the child of Sacagawea and interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau, and raised in the home of William Clark. The book follows Baptiste as he is raised in the home of Clark, thinking he is no different than the white children but quickly learning that his heritage will always separate him from his "father" and from his native people. He goes to Europe as an example of the New World's native people, returns home to confront the family that rejected him, the family he rejected and to try and make a place for himself. The book ends with his death as an old man who seems to have discovered who he really is. The most moving part of this book is that Baptiste always acknowledges that he does not know himself, even when he thinks that he has learned something new he really is discovering things he already knew.

This book is really a discussion about the definition of a person. It asks: Who determines who we are? Is one defined by their heritage? By their skin tone? By their cultural upbringing? Baptiste is a renaissance man. He speaks several languages fluently, a few more passably, plays the piano and violin professionally, has traveled the world and yet he is consistently treated as a 'savage' and not as a real human being. It is only when he begins to discard the self-loathing he learned at the hands of his adopted family and those he was raised around that Baptiste is able to become his own person and learn to be comfortable as he is.

As a person of color I can relate to Baptiste. It is easier sometimes to allow people to define you and to fall into those definitions rather than being whoever it is you want to be. As I have aged I have learned that only I can define myself and limit myself but it is a difficult lesson to learn. More books should be as honest as MUSEUM OF HUMAN BEINGS and explore the prejudices and attitudes that lead to hatred and self-loathing.

Other Reviews:

From Publishers WeeklyPlaywright Sargent's debut novel is a stylish look at the fate of Sacagawea's baby son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the first Native American to tour Europe—as a curiosity and entertainment, of course. Twenty-four-year-old Sacagawea, though married, becomes William Clark's lover while helping guide the Lewis and Clark Expedition; after she dies on the trail, Clark adopts her son, Baptiste. Soon, Clark establishes his home in St. Louis, as well as a garish museum dedicated to his expedition, and sets to educating his new son. Soon, Baptiste is traveling Europe under the protection of Duke Paul, a cruel man who, when he isn't exhibiting the boy to royal courts, repeatedly rapes young Baptiste. Six years later, Baptiste returns to America (astonishingly, still accompanied by Paul), where he confronts Clark over his mother's mysterious death; unsatisfied and restless, Baptiste heads west and finds work as a fur trapper, an Army scout and gold prospector. Increasingly haunted by his mother, Baptiste revisits her in memories and visions that lend themselves nicely to Sargent's lyrical prose. With historical cameos (Beethoven, Kit Carson, Washington Irving) and an impressively rounded portrait of the laid-back, introspective, nomadic Baptiste, this novel will satisfy fans of American history. (Nov.) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

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