Nonfiction November: Book Pairing

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It’s week 2 of Nonfiction November and this week’s prompt comes from Julie @ JulzReads:

This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

I thought about this for a while and decided to pair up The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose.

I think they make a good pair becasue what they have in common is The Quest.

Cover of The HobbitThe Hobbit
By J.R.R. Tolkien
Unwin Books, London, 1966

Almost all fantasy stories are built around a quest. The hero or heroine takes up some daunting task that invariably requires them to set out on a long, adventure filled, actuarially dubious journey. They endure countless hardships, encounter dangerous beasts, fearsome enemies and merciless weather. They’re often accompanied by one or more companions and occasionally they find new friends and allies along the way.

Of course, frequently the quest is as much about self-discovery as it is about completing the task. Just ask Luke Skywalker. Or Bilbo Baggins.

The Hobbit fits this pattern exactly. Bilbo sets off with thirteen dwarves to help them reclaim their ancestral home (and its treasure) under The Lonely Mountain from the evil dragon, Smaug. They encounter trolls, orcs, giant spiders and ferocious snowstorms. They’re aided by eagles and shape-shifting bears. And Gandalf, of course.

In the end, Bilbo discovers he’s cleverer and braver and more adventuresome than he ever imagined.

Cover of Undaunted CourageUndaunted Courage
By Stephen E. Ambrose
Touchstone, New York, 1996

Undaunted Courage is the story of a real-life quest.

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory – all the land stretching west from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains – from the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte for $25-million.  Possibly the greatest real estate deal in human history.

The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States. Much of the territory was unmapped terra incognita. Jefferson commissioned his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition to find out what he’d bought.  Jefferson was especially keen on discovering a navigable water route across the American continent to the Pacific Ocean.

Lewis and his friend William Clark assembled and co-captained a company of about 30 men called the Corps of Discovery. They left St. Louis in May of 1804 and headed up the Missouri River.

There were no dragons on this quest, but Lewis was one of the first white Europeans to encounter a grizzly bear. (Lewis’s musket shot merely pissed off the bear and he had to run for his life when the bear charged after him.)  They had no wizard guide either but Sacagawea, a young Shoshone Indian woman, traveled with the Corps from North Dakota to the Pacific and proved to be indispensable in establishing connections with many of the tribes they encountered along the way.

The Corps reached the mouth of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean in the fall of 1805. They spent that winter at what is today Fort Clatsop, Oregon, returning to St. Louis and a hero’s welcome in late September 1806, completing a 3,700-mile journey.

Lewis & Clark never found a navigable water route to the Pacific. There isn’t one. In that sense they failed in their quest, but they explored and charted much of what became the Western United States.

I first read Undaunted Courage shortly after I moved to the Pacific Northwest. I wanted to learn something about the history of the area.  It was spellbinding.  Stephen Ambrose tells the story of the Lewis & Clark Expedition with flair and enthusiasm. You can’t help getting swept up in the journey.

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