World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format          

Book Review


Whitaker, Robert. The Mapmakers' Wife (Basic Books, 2004). 295 pp, $25.00.

     Robert Whitaker, journalist and award-winner of the George Polk Award for Medical Writing, a National Association of Science Writers' Award for best magazine article, and 1998 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, has written "a true tale of love, murder, and survival in the Amazon" in The Mapmaker's Wife. The book reads like an adventure novel, but is in fact a well-researched historical account of a 1735 French scientific expedition to the Amazon. 1
     Set in Spanish colonial America, the charge of the French expedition is to search for the answer to the question of "What shape and size is the earth?" Their mission takes ten years to accomplish. The first part of the book relates the intrigue and adventures that these academics experience as they deal with the politics of French/Spanish/Portuguese relations, the harshness of the natural environment of the Andes and Amazon Basin, and the bureaucracy of Spanish Colonial America. During the expedition, one of the members, Jean Godin, falls in love with and marries an upper class Peruvian woman, Isabel, daughter of a local Spanish businessman. 2
     As the expedition comes to an end, Godin makes the treacherous journey to French Guiana to arrange to bring his wife and family back to France. There he gets caught up in the complexities of an ever-shifting French administration and a corrupt colonial bureaucracy. Many years pass without resolving his travel issues, and without contact with his wife. Finally, Isabel decides to make the journey to French Guiana to be reunited with her husband. She organizes an expedition and heads out across the Andes and the Amazon River basin. It is a harrowing and dangerous trip, never before taken by a woman. In fact, few men had survived this trek. 3
     The book is accompanied by original drawings and maps as well as other excellent visual images. It is well-researched and annotated, drawing upon the journals of the travelers as well as archival material from the colonial and governmental records of France, Portugal and Spain. In addition, the author himself made the journey through the Andes and down the Amazon River. 4
     This book is suitable for high school teachers and above who are looking for a readable, exciting tale of the 18th century. It fits well into the world history survey because it brings to life the conflicts that existed between the various nations who laid claim to the Americas. The expedition demonstrates the type of competitive scientific research that was going on at the time as well as the perils associated with it. The book discusses colonial administrations and economies, the roles of both indigenous people and Africans in South American society, and the role of women of both Spanish/Creole and indigenous backgrounds. The drawings provide ample opportunities to study attitudes and stereotypes of the time. The careful use of documentary evidence, moreover, provides an excellent model for students to follow in their own writing.

Discussion/Essay Ideas:

  1. Consider examples of the relationships among the various social classes in Spanish America (social structure; labor systems).
  2. Consider the role and position of women of various classes in the colonial empire (gender roles).
  3. Consider the organization of colonial governments and their relations to the governments of the colonizing nations (changing governmental structure; interaction between regions; economics).
  4. Consider the impact of the Europeans on the Americas (global interactions).
  5. Consider the ways science is advanced in this time period, the role of scientific societies and the topics of interest to these scholars (science and technology).
Mary G. Saracino
Brewster High School, New York

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2004 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use