981: The Mapmaker’s Wife by Robert Whitaker

by Gerard

981.1032092: Whitaker, Robert. The Mapmaker’s Wife: A True Tale Of Love, Murder, And Survival In The Amazon. New York: Basic Books, 2004. 295 pp. ISBN 0-7382-0808-6.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 900: History and Geography
  • 980: History of South America
  • 981: History of Brazil
  • 981.1: History of the Amazon River
  • +032: 18th Century
  • +092: Biography

Imagine being a Peruvian girl in the eighteenth century. Your family has a rich French heritage and you dream of one day going there and marrying a French landowner. Then, one day, as an eight-year old in a convent school you hear that a team of French scientists have arrived in the territory and are working alongside your family and neighbors. At age thirteen, the signal carrier and junior geographer of the team, having become a friend of the family and trusted foreigner, successfully asks for your hand in marriage. But then, eight years later, your husband goes off into the Amazonian jungle to carve out a route to take you and the family to Europe.

And for twenty years, you never hear from him.

This is the story of Isabel Grameson Godin. In 1735, a team of geographers and natural philosophers left France to determine the true length of a degree of latitude and longitude. To get a definitive picture of the shape of the Earth, they had to go to the Equator, then controlled in South America by both Spain and Portugal. After completing their mission, signal carrier Jean Godin married Isabel and they started a family in Peru. In 1749, Jean concocted a plan to move the family to Europe. He would travel down the Amazon alone, scouting a path to the Atlantic coast, then return to Peru, gather his family, and head out again. He unfortunately did not foresee the European political squabbles that would suspend his passports and leave him stranded in French Guiana indefinitely.

Twenty years later, Isabel headed out into the jungle with her brothers and nephews (and a retinue of servants). Her journey left her beaten, infected, and scarred, but she finally found her husband on the other side of the Amazon. She was the lone survivor of the journey. Together, they sailed to France and lived out the rest of their lives. Her trek serves as a constant tale of inspiration and dread to all those who enter the Amazon.

Robert Whitaker’s Mapmaker’s Wife is unfortunately more about the scientific mission then about Isabel’s journey, but intimate knowledge of both are required for her story. The tale of the trek is both rich and haunting, especially the passage on what hunger does to a body and just how many South American insects can burrow into a person’s skin (that part is not for the faint of heart). Readers of scientific history and tales of exploration will find a good marriage of both in this book.