I have stacks of books to read and report on. Actually, I have several I've read of late, so what we're going to have is, I hope, an almost daily Book Report this week.
First up, Ghost Empire by Philip Marchand, which I read on the way down I-75 on Thursday. I was absolutely taken with this book. Loved it.
Here's the gist: Marchand, of French-Canadian origins, but born in Massachusetts, and now living and working in Toronto, takes us along the route of 17th century explorer LaSalle. So the book is part contemporary travelogue, part history, and part spiritual and theological meditation. Really.
LaSalle, trained by Jesuits and, for a time, one of them (not ordained, but in formation), came to Canada, like most others, to make money in the fur trade, but, being an inveterate explorer, could not sit still. So he ended up traversing present-day Ontario to Detroit, up to Macinack Island, then down the Mississippi to its mouth. On a return trip, intending to find the Mississippi Mouth again, he ended up in Texas instead, where he was eventually killed by one of his own men.
What Marchand is after, as the title indicates, is ghosts - the French hoped to hem in the British east of the Allegheny Mountains, and if they had succeeded, the land claimed by LaSalle would have, at least for a time, remained in French hands. It is the "ghosts" of this empire, this French presence that Marchand is looking for, finding it in obvious places like Ste. Genevieve, MO, and not-so-obvious ones like Monroe, Michigan, where French was widely spoken until the mid-20th century and muskrat was an approved food for Fridays.
So he tells the story of LaSalle - a not uncontroversial figure - with sympathy. part of the sympathy with LaSalle and all he represents is rooted in their shared Catholic faith. And Marchand is no recovering, nuanced Catholic. His faith, as it articulates it, reminds me much of Walker Percy's Dr. Thomas More. It is matter-of-fact, humble, straightforward, and the unifying principle in his life.
In this book, the unifying principle impacts everything Marchand experiences, and links him to the past, and the past to him. He offers reasoned and fair accounts of so many things that seem odd to the modern reader - the passion for evangelization, the sacrifices of the missionaries, LaSalle's insistence on chastity among his men, practices of corporal mortification. And it is often lovely and moving. You might find it difficult not to shed a grateful tear, even, near the end, as Marchand meets a Mississippi man, one of whose far distant ancestors was a baby born on a ship on the Atlantic to one of the group accompanying LaSalle to Texas. Both of his parents died, one at the Indians' hands, the other through hardship, and miraculously, he survived, in captivity, until he and his siblings were rescued in Mexico.
And today, a man in Mississippi is here because of the strength and small miracles suffusing one life, four hundred years ago. Which reminds us, of course, that all of our lives fall in exactly the same category, and that each of our lives is a miracle, and that wordless gratitude is the honor we owe God and the saints..and sinners of the past.
Of course we are all fellow pilgrims on this earth, and as such all owe each other a warm abrazo. That goes for you, too, Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle, who could be such a bastard, and who, for your sins, met a violent end and lay unburied on the earth. By now, we trust, your faults have been purged in the fires of purgatory and your soul has found rest. Send a blessing on this book. Help us to realize that nothing in the universe is lost and that our existence is richer than we know.
Food for thought and for the spirit on these days we remember all the saints and all the souls, pilgrims with us on the journey.