Astoria, by Peter Stark.
Subtitle: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire – A Tale of Ambition and Survival on the Early America Frontier.
If there’s anything a lengthy subtitle teaches us, it’s that the book is probably non-fiction. Astoria is no exception. But I like history, and in this age of every American politician claiming to know exactly what every early American was thinking when this country was founded (and how life must have been so clear-cut and wonderful back then), a little early American history seemed like a good subject to get into.
While far less politics and far more high adventure, Peter Stark’s Astoria does shed a fascinating light on the consequences of westward expansion in the years following the revolutionary war, as entrepreneurs hoping to make their fortune focused on the massive natural resources of North America and the possibilities of controlling a global trade. In this tale, it’s John Jacob Astor and his desire to own the fur trade. (I won’t be making any comments on the destructive nature of the fur trade, nor does the author of the book. It was big business back then and where fortune calls, people go.)
In 1810, with Lewis and Clark back from their trek across the western half of the continent, Astor sensed an opportunity to create a colony on the west coast at the mouth of the Columbia River. From there, he could store furs from the inner continent and then ship them for sale to China. Loaded with goods from China, his ships would make for Europe and then back to North America. A grand plan, but Astor had to set up the colony first. So he sent a ship from New York to sail around South America and back up to the Columbia River, about a year’s journey. At the same time, he sent a party overland to retrace the Lewis and Clark route and establish fur posts along the way to begin trapping for furs.
Leading the sea voyage was Captain Jonathan Thorne, a former Navy man with a rigid code. His relationship with the partners in Astor’s company that sailed with him to the west coast would almost derail the venture before it began. Leading the overland party was Wilson Price Hunt, a man with no wilderness experience at all. His inability to anticipate the dangers of wilderness travel would cost more than a few of his people their lives.
The back matter on the book lets curious readers know that Astoria itself “would be short-lived,” so you already know how things are going to end. But it’s the journey, not the destination, and the author weaves a suspenseful tale covering every type of conflict: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Himself. It’s this last conflict, Man vs. Himself, that, in my opinion, really drives the narrative.
Every character, while real, are themselves larger than life. Their flaws are fully on display and explored to the fullest. Every major flaw of every major character will shape the outcome of the journey. Partners in the company will throw in their shares, some will desert, some will take their frustrations out on the Native Americans and start a cycle of bloodshed. And that’s not the half of it.
I like Peter Stark’s style. He’s writing about the psychological impact, the crushing weight, of the life-or-death journey these people will take, and not just the factual trip. He’s delving into the events to draw conclusions about the players in the story, hoping to hit upon exactly what went through their minds and why they did what they did. But he doesn’t present those inner struggles as fact, and so he allows the reader to play along and make up their own minds. The author takes a tale that’s been told before (though not recently as far as I know) and finds that angle that makes it wholly his own story.
It’s fun to go along for the ride.