Wednesday, January 24, 2018

“Full of mystery and danger, bravery and tragedy . . . transcends both time and continents. A marvelous read.”

                                                                                                   –Dennis Lehane

Read the First Chapter

Named by the American Library Association as one of the best biographies of 2004.

About The Mapmaker’s Wife

In 1735, a team of French scientists, led by Charles Marie de La Condamine, traveled to Quito in colonial South America with the intention of precisely measuring the distance of one degree of latitude at the equator. Theirs was the first scientific expedition to the New World, and it was designed to answer the most pressing scientific question of the day. What was the exact shape of the earth? Was it shaped like an orange, squashed at the poles and bulging at the equator, or vice versa, elongated at the poles and cinched in at the equator? By comparing the distance of one degree of latitude at the equator with a degree of latitude in France (or to one in Lapland), the French scientists would be able to answer this question.

The French Academy of Sciences called the mission the “greatest expedition the world has ever known.” It lasted eight years, and by its end, the French scientists had done far more than make a measurement to determine the shape of the earth. Through their investigations and writings, they provided Europe with the first intimate portrait of colonial South America—its astonishing geography, its amazing flora and fauna, and its rich culture.

But this expedition had yet to run its full course. In 1741, one of the French scientists, Jean Godin, had married a rich Peruvian woman, Isabel Gramesón.  They lived together for a time in Riobama, high in the Andes, and then in 1749, Jean Godin–for complicated reasons–ended up stranded in French Guiana, unable to return to Riobamba. Twenty years later, Isabel traveled through the Upper Amazon rainforest and down the Amazon River in order to rejoin her husband, a dangerous trek no woman had ever made before. The Mapmaker’s Wife documents the extraordinary story of her journey, which left 18th century readers in Europe spellbound.

The Documents

View Historical Images: The French Academy of Sciences mounted the expedition to the equator in order to resolve a fierce debate over the exact shape of the earth.  Charles Marie de La Condamine and the other scientists left France in 1735, and didn’t finish their measurements in the Andes until 1743. The illustrations from the books published by La Condamine and the other expedition members provide a sense of the mission’s dramatic nature. (The Expedition.)

See Isabel’s Route Today: The Upper Amazon that Isabel Godin traveled through in 1769-1770, where she ended up lost and abandoned, remains a pristine wilderness. To research The Mapmaker’s Wife, Robert Whitaker retraced her path from Riobamba to Andoas. (Following Isabel.)

Read Jean Godin’s letter: In 1773, Isabel’s husband, Jean Godin, wrote a letter describing Isabel’s travails in the upper Amazon. You can read that letter here.  (Jean’s Letter.)

(Please be patient; pages with photos and the pdf. of Jean Godin’s letter may take a little while to load.)