In Lorraine Boissoneault’s book, The Last Voyageurs, the author immerses the reader into the 1977 reenactment of La Salle’s expedition and the perils of the Great Lakes.
Reid Lewis, a French teacher from Elgin, Illinois conceived of the modern odyssey. He wanted to prove that young men could live under the same primitive conditions as the 17th century voyageurs. Starting in Montreal, six adults and sixteen teenagers paddled 3,300 miles down to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
In his pursuit for authenticity, Mr. Lewis and his teens, along with several professional advisors, built their six canoes, hand-sewed their costumes, and memorized songs of the voyageurs. Each member assumed a French identity, including a priest who accompanied them. Lewis became La Salle in his knee breeches and ruffled shirt. The teens studied the explorer’s journals so when visiting communities, they could answer questions with accuracy. Lewis also prepared the men to handle personality conflicts, and he instructed them in survival skills. When a canoe capsized and the young men were plunged into a frigid Lake Michigan, that knowledge saved their lives.
Throughout the tale, Boissoneault weaves historical data into the narrative, and this information enriches the modern events. The author compares the similarities between the contemporary Lewis and the 17th century La Salle as they wrestle with raising money for their expeditions as well as their struggles to manage their men.
Both Lewis and La Salle recognized the significance of the Great Lakes. For La Salle, the territory beckoned to him because of the incredible natural resources and important water ways for transportation. Lewis wanted to honor the rich history of America’s heartland that was often overlooked.
Readers will also be drawn in by this coming-of-age story. At the time of the 1977 expedition, Lewis was weary of how adults criticize young people for their lack of discipline. The narrative shows how over the eight-month long expedition, the teens are transformed into a rugged community who endure physical, emotional and psychological hardships that shape their characters. In contrast to the French voyageurs who coped with the raw wilderness and tense moments with the Native Americans, the teens face the conflict of living as 17th century men while traveling through a twentieth century civilization. When the waterways freeze due to the severe winter, the men resort to trudging down an Indiana back road where four of them are hit by a truck, but survive.
A short epilogue transports the reader three-and-a-half decades forward into a reunion of the now middle-aged voyageurs. Most have married, and turned into white-collar professionals. As the men share their memories, an underlying question surfaces. Because so few people remember the modern-day expedition, did it have any value?
Yes, the men agree. Working towards a common goal developed their courage, determination, and self-confidence. They have never forgotten the generosity of strangers who witnessed the reenactment of 17th century history. For readers, this narrative acts as a portal to Michigan’s early days. Come paddle along with these voyageurs for a glimpse of what La Salle experienced when he explored the Great Lakes.
Joan Donaldson writes from her organic blueberry farm near Saugatuck. Her novel, On Viney's Mountain, won the 2010 Friends of American Writers Award and represented the State of Tennessee at the 2010 National Book Festival.
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