California Literary Review

The True Account: A Novel of the Lewis and Clark and Kinneson Expeditions by Howard Frank Mosher

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April 24th, 2007 at 6:14 am

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The True Account: A Novel of the Lewis and Clark and Kinneson Expeditions
by Howard Frank Mosher
Houghton Mifflin Company, 352 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Yellow Sage Flower Who Tells Wise Stories

Living in Montana makes avoiding the state tourist ministry inspired hype concerning the bicentennial of the Lewis & Clark Expedition difficult. From television commercials huckstering a long-gone, probably not-quite landscape, to billboards, license plates and brochures depicting the two intrepid explorers looking wistfully towards the west and an inland passage to the Pacific, the entire historical mess has gotten wildly out of hand.

Enter Howard Frank Mosher and his delightfully picaresque novel THE TRUE ACCOUNT – A Novel of the Lewis & Clark & Kinneson Expeditions. Written in the spirit and nearly lost tradition of Don Quixote and some of the works by Mark Twain including A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and passages of A Mysterious Stranger, the Vermont writer’s book wanders joyfully and optimistically from the east coast across the high plains, the Rocky Mountains, down to the Pacific and back again.

In the spring of 1804, Private True Teague Kinneson – schoolmaster, inventor, playwright, and explorer – sets out with his nephew, Ticonderoga, to race Meriwether Lewis and William Clark across the continent. Along the chaotic way True and Ti encounter Daniel Boone and his six-foot-two daughter Flame Danielle; fight and trick a renegade army out to stop Lewis’s expedition; invent baseball with the Nez Perce; hold a high-stakes rodeo with Sacagawea’s Shoshone relatives; and outwit True’s lifelong adversary, the Gentleman from Vermont, a.k.a. the devil himself. And when a beautiful and mysterious Blackfoot girl named Yellow Sage Flower Who Tells Wise Stories enters the narrative, things become even more convoluted.

The book is in some ways revisionist fiction that makes Lewis and Clark and their madcap crew appear to be blundering fools, which based on historical accounts including journals from the expedition, may possibly have been the case at certain junctures of the trip.

The True Account is a nearly complete departure from Mosher’s other novels that include Where the Rivers Flow North (adapted into an excellent movie with Rip Torn, Tantoo Cardinal, Michael J. Fox and Treat Williams), Stranger in the Kingdom and The Fall of the Year. While all of his previous novels have their humorous moments, they are often focused on the more serious aspects of living and often set in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The True Account has its serious interludes, including a passage set in the Breaks of the Little Missouri along the Montana-North Dakota border, a section that is some of the finest place writing concerning the West. But the main theme and attitude of this book is one of fun, parody and tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a worked-to-death part of American history. This is refreshing coming amid the constant bombardment regarding the explorations of Lewis & Clark, the fuselage of historical nonsense often accompanied with background music more often associated with Spartacus or Ben Hur.

Mosher has received a Guggenheim fellowship and won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award, the American Civil Liberties Union Award for excellence in the Arts, and the New England Book Award. Born in upstate New York, Mosher is a longtime resident of the Northeast Kingdom, where he lives with Phillis, his wife of nearly four decades, who is the inspiration for the character Yellow Sage Flower Who Tells Wise Stories. They have two children. His son Jake lives in Montana and is an accomplished novelist in his own right.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved stories from the American West,” said Mosher. “So much so that about five years ago while visiting my son in Montana, I decided to write my own. A New Englander myself, I invented an eccentric Vermonter, Private True Teague Kinneson, and sent him on a wild, cross-continental journey…I regard Lewis and Clark as two of the greatest explorers in American history. At the same time, with all of the hoopla over the 2003-2006 bicentennial of their epic journey, it seemed to me that an irreverent, comic novel about a Vermonter racing them west might be refreshing.”

He lists among his favorite writers Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Jane Austin, Thoreau, Faulkner, Robert Frost, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Hemingway, essayist Edward Hoagland and also said that he is “a great fan” of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James Lee Burke and Elmore Leonard.

Mosher spent five years writing and researching the book. He retraced the Lewis and Clark Trail from St. Louis to the west coast three times. He also visited Lewis’s grave on the Ntachez Trace in Tennessee; northern Montana, where Lewis had an encounter with several young Blackfeet; Pompey’s Pillar on the Yellowstone; and Monticello, where President Jefferson and Lewis came up with the concept for the expedition. Along the way he fished the headwaters of the Missouri and Columbia rivers, hiked in the Selway-Bitterroot Mountains where the original expedition nearly starved and froze to death, and had several interesting encounters, including one with a Nez Perce elder “who seemed to have absolutely magical abilities.”

“I was equally amazed by how much the country still looks nearly identical to the descriptions in the explorers’ journals and by how much it is totally unrecognizable.”

When asked why he writes, Mosher’s succinct answer was “Why not?” He added that he is working on another novel “called Waiting for Teddy Williams, in which, hold on to your hat, with the help of some rapscallions from Kingdom County, Vermont, the Boston Red Sox win their first World Series since 1918.”

And such is the state of current affairs for one of this country’s most talented and inventive writers.

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