Savage Lands

by Clare Clark

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 393 pp. | $25.00

Reviewed by Jan Alexander

Dismal Ghosts Along the Bayou

clare clark photo

Now that the reality show Who Do you Think You Are? has introduced the concept of ancestor worship to Americans – and even infused it with a Hallmark- sort of coolness – perhaps there is a ready market for tales of those who came here when doing so meant negotiating terms of settlement with the indigenous tribes. The title Savage Lands refers to just that – a vast territory that was home to people the new French arrivals called savages – and Clare Clark, a British historian who specializes in novels about dark lives in distant centuries, has done a meticulous and credible job of dredging up the complexities of the 18th century French colonists who homesteaded – or invaded, depending on your point of view - the swampy Gulf shores of present day Alabama and Louisiana, all part of the vast territory named for King Louis XIV.

This is sub-altern history as a mini-series might depict it, delving into the records that exist and creating a cast of characters loosely based on real people whose fortunes, or lack thereof, were the direct offshoots of the policies of Governor-General Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville. A financial bubble, driven by the rise and fall in value of the great trading company known as the Mississippi Company, which claimed in its circa 1700 marketing materials that the land beyond the Atlantic Ocean was awash with precious stones and welcoming natives.

As Clark explains in an author’s note at the end of the novel, the men who went searching for New World riches also wanted brides, so the French government arranged for a couple of ships to carry young girls of marriageable age. The King bestowed upon each of them a trousseau trunk that looked much like a coffin. Hence the girls became known as the “casket girls,” for too many of them a foreshadowing of what was in store.

In the author’s note and accompanying publicity notes, Clark also explains an historical score she wanted to settle in the book. In visiting New Orleans, she says, “I discovered that almost all of those who have sought to trace their Louisiana ancestry back several hundred years claim these casket girls as their forebears.”

The lineage, Clark says, seems improbable. D’Iberville asked for 100 girls, but only 22 agreed to go; it wasn’t easy to convince well-bred girls of the advantages of life in Louisiana, nor those who lacked family fortunes, and had dim prospects in France. Of those 22, a few died en route, and their infant mortality rate in the New World was so high that some observers claimed the climate made women sterile. Then, when the stream of voluntary colonists dwindled, Clark writes, “prisons were emptied; gangs of bandoliers scoured the country for beggars and vagabonds…Louisiana became a dumping ground for undesirables, smugglers, criminals and prostitutes. Given the unsavory and immoral nature of the women that followed, it’s not surprising that most would prefer to believe they are scions of respectable European families, and not the cast-off dregs of France’s orphanages, prisons and whorehouses.”

All of this holds plenty of promise for an historical novel, with two caveats. One, I’m not wholly convinced that we put much stake in glorifying the social standing of our ancestors in America. True, I once met a descendant of a 19th century U.S. President who said he thought Pocahontas was also an ancestor. Aha, I thought, claiming native lineage is an acceptable practice now among our country’s nearly-100-percent blue-bloods – as long as it’s a celebrity native American.

And anyone can go to and see, as one of the various melodramatic examples of what goes on there, Sarah Jessica Parker getting all choked up as she sifts through a library record. “I find this really physically upsetting,” she says over the revelation that one of her ancestors was a woman accused of witchcraft in colonial days, and perhaps sentenced to death, though she is relieved to learn that her ancestor was the accused instead of an accuser.

Still, it can’t be just my family that accepts – indeed, relishes – the miscreants in our tree. After my Uncle James retired and took up genealogical research, we all hooted over the tale of our ante-bellum great-great-great aunt who appears to have poisoned her first husband with arsenic in his syllabub, gotten away with it thanks to the chivalry of the gentlemen of the jury, then gone on to poison two more husbands before she was hanged in Minnesota. We might joke to spouses, “be nice, or I’ll feed you an old family recipe,” but we figure this is America, we have psychotherapists and life coaches and divorce courts to help us get over things, we’ve reinvented ourselves a bazillion times since the Old South, and anyway, a gruesome story is far, far better than no story at all.

When we talk about great-great Aunt Ann, we expect the lights to flicker and the air conditioning vents to sigh. The deeper down south you go, the more the stifling summer air seems thick with the ghosts of a million troubled souls. And that brings me to the second caveat: when you write fiction set in the South, the bar is very, very high. The early 18th century characters of Savage Lands are based on people who could have been the ancestors of the real-life prototypes for Blanche DuBois, the Snopes clan, and even Rhett Butler. To dig up these ancestors and do them justice would require speaking a language as yeasty as sour mash, as fertile as August heat, in prose that winds like kudzu for miles, only to circle back to a story that has grown as lush as magnolia blossoms in its travels.

Clark’s voice is way too brisk for that world.

Her previous two novels benefit from a uniquely British sense of cruelty – shades of a dark and stormy night. Reviewers have pointed out parallels to Dickens in her first novel, The Great Stink, a tale of a sewer worker, a sewer scavenger, and a murder in Victorian London; and her second, The Nature of Monsters, about a pregnant teenaged servant girl in 18th century London whose master makes her unborn child the subject of a nasty scientific experiment. The mood is pitch-perfect in her London stories, but even so, they lack the kind of macabre humor that might make these novels destined to live through the ages.

Savage Lands begins in 1704, with a ship called the Pelican, about to sail out of France. On board amongst the marriageable French women is Elisabeth Savaret. Elisabeth is educated, but an orphan with few options except to become a spinster selling sewing notions in her aunt’s Paris shop – or take the king up on his offer to sail to the New World. The way Clark builds her up, Elisabeth, who has read The Odyssey and is carrying three volumes of Montaigne in her casket-trunk, might become a remarkable woman in America, or she might grow bitter and unfulfilled. Either way, it seems like something profound is supposed to happen under the heading of character development. Not that Elisabeth is a woman of high hopes or anything much beyond a ferocious wistfulness. She is thinking as she crosses the Atlantic, “It was miserable to be a grown woman, more miserable still to be a grown woman with neither the funds or the affections a grown woman must have at her disposal if she was to contrive her own future.” She looks down on the other girls, “the chickens”, she calls them for their prattling and cackling. The chickens will be her neighbors for the rest of her life.

Ironically, of all the girls, when they settle in the village of Mobile. Elisabeth turns out to be the one most wrapped up in her husband. He is a French-Canadian ensign named Jean-Claude Babelon, and it is telling, though more of an emotionally distant authorial voice than of anything else, that we first meet Jean-Claude not in person, but in Elisabeth’s thoughts as she carries on her housewifely duties, sounding suspiciously infatuated for a girl who fancies herself so much more sensible than her peers.

The fact that he is away much of the time might foreshadow what is ahead in their marriage – he travels often on military and trading missions, camps with tribes and spends nights in tents not his own – but the effect is to paint all of the characters in lonely little boxes, a curious state of existence in a newly settled territory where community had to mean the difference between survival and death.

Clark has a nice handle on what is clearly young lust and a marriage doomed to grow stale: “These days (Elisabeth) had to struggle to recall the girl she was before him, when her self was all in her head … passing appetites satisfied by a warm cloak or an apricot tart….She did not talk to him of poetry or philosophy, of science or astronomy. When they talked, they spoke of themselves. Sometimes, late in the liquid darkness, he told her of his dreams. For now, he was merely an ensign, the lowest rank of commissioned infantry officers, but he meant to be rich….With him, in this strange land, where the swamp whispered and the vast fruits rotted and swelled, she was flesh, all flesh.”

But lovely though her prose can be, it never quite dredges up what the swamp might have whispered, largely because it is more studied competence than real emotional investment.

Clark is academically adept in making this fictionalized history, creating characters that are of their time but never passing contemporary judgment on the way they view their world; they use the word “savage” throughout, and never question the practice of buying slaves. Nor are the natives and slaves depicted as noble savages, but as people who come up with their own ways to survive.

But where Clark particularly stops short is in inhabiting the mind of Elisabeth. More fully drawn are the two men who become the center of her life – the seductive and ambitious Jean-Claude and Auguste Guichard, a young French boy who trying his luck in the New World, left by a commandant to live with the Ouma natives. Auguste is a character based on several real young colonists who were charged with the job of learning tribal languages and custom in order to form alliances so that the French might have indigenous allies against the English.

Of course, the men get to travel while the women wait for them. Even so, we learn more about Elisabeth’s appeal from Jean-Claude than from the author. “She is strong, self-reliant. Bloody-minded, some might say,” Jean-Claude tells Auguste. Elisabeth is, indeed, bloody-minded. She can keep house for years, keep getting pregnant and miscarrying (in a way that any contemporary reader will suspect has much to do with her state of mind), live with a native slave girl who becomes pregnant with Jean-Claude’s child – and then, when the opportunity strikes, she will betray her husband.

In an opera, this would be the final aria, and the word “justice” would factor into the crescendo. But here the main action occurs in flashbacks and gossip amongst the aging chickens, leaving a sour and static quality to both the plot twist and Elisabeth’s character.

And never once, throughout an adult lifetime, does Elisabeth laugh. True, her life is nasty and brutish, but this is Louisiana at the dawn of those multi-layers of European and African cultures that left a mindset of laissez les bon temps rouler even in the face of plagues, wars, hurricanes and oil spills, and the omission feels tone-deaf. As the years wore on and the French prostitutes and thieves arrived, I couldn’t help but suspect the lowlife class was having much more fun than our heroine – and leaving more entertaining TV scripts for any present-day celebrities who happen to have Louisiana roots.

Jan Alexander is a writer and magazine editor living in New York City

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