Fischer, Pulitzer Prize–winner for Washington’s Crossing, has produced the definitive biography of Samuel de Champlain (1567–1635): spy, explorer, courtier, soldier, sailor, ethnologist, mapmaker, and founder and governor of New France (today’s Quebec), which he founded in 1608. This extraordinary and flawed individual was a man of war who dreamed of establishing a peaceful nation in the New World. Fischer once again displays a staggering and wide research, lightly worn, including no fewer than 16 fascinating appendixes covering everything from the Indian Nations in Champlain’s World, 1603–35 to Champlain’s preferred firearm. The bibliography is equally impressive, and the same should be said of Fischer’s literary skills and approach. He does not have a thesis, or a theory, or an ideology, but instead answers questions (Who was this man? What did he do? Why should we care?) to weave together his epic story. With 2008 the 400th anniversary of the foundation of New France, the time is ripe for this outstanding work.
In 1856, two groups of Mormon emigrants using handcarts to transport their belongings got a disastrously late start on their westward trek to Utah. Unexpected October blizzards and the lack of restocked supplies left them stranded in Wyoming, coping with frostbite, starvation and disease. While Mormon retellings of this story have emphasized the subsequent daring rescue, Roberts sees the whole episode as an entirely preventable disaster from start to finish. Moreover, he fixes the blame at the top, arguing that Brigham Young, then president of the church, consistently undervalued human life, created dangerous situations with regard to provisions in order to pinch pennies and dissembled after the fact about not having any knowledge of the emigrants’ late start. Roberts builds a persuasive case, arguing from dozens of primary sources and using the emigrants’ own haunting words about their experiences. He competently situates the tragedy within the context of the 1856–1857 Mormon Reformation, a time of religious extremism. This is a solid and well-researched contribution to Mormon studies and the history of the American West.