Champlain’s Dream: The European Founding of North America
by David Hackett Fischer
(Simon & Schuster, 834 pages, $40)
Samuel de Champlain arrived in Plymouth Harbor 15 years before the Pilgrims. The French explorer was scouting settlement locations, traveling south from what is now Nova Scotia. By the time of Champlain’s death, in 1635, the colony he had founded at Quebec half a century before stretched all the way south to present-day Philadelphia. But if the “Father of New France” is still a hero to Canadian schoolchildren, he’s largely forgotten in the U.S. That’s a shame, says Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David Hackett Fischer. Champlain not only lived a wildly eventful life. He aimed to realize in the New World a “dream of humanity and peace” that still could be a model for Americans today.
Fischer doesn’t quite do his hero justice, said Tony Horwitz in The Washington Post. Champlain was a man who “shot American rapids in bark canoes and crossed the Atlantic 27 times.” He befriended many native tribes and battled others. He was also “a talented spy, mapmaker, artist, naturalist, and writer.” But in part because the
explorer mostly did live up to his lofty ideals, the author of Washington’s Crossing and Albion’s Seed can’t make him come alive. Instead, the protagonist of this biography appears “almost perfect, and perfectly dull.” The book’s “best chapters” actually arrive once Champlain is dead. Part of this empire builder’s dream, it seems, was that French immigrants would intermarry with Indian tribes. A “fascinating” hybrid culture arose from that idea, and the descendents of those intermarriages now number as many as 12 million.
Expecting pulsating drama from Fischer is asking too much, though, said Max Boot in The New York Times. Champlain left behind several published works, but very little is known about his personal life. Fischer’s “plain, unadorned” prose is seasoned with enough “intriguing ideas” to keep many readers engaged. His central idea, however, remains questionable, said Neal Salisbury in The Boston Globe. He claims that Champlain’s “dream” of different peoples living in harmony left a significant imprint on North American culture. But New France shriveled, after all, mostly due to a long war with the Iroquois that Champlain himself launched.