This is the story of Lewis and Clark as told by Seaman, Captain Lewis’s Newfoundland dog who accompanied the Corps of Discovery on their epic journey to the Pacific Ocean in 1804-6. I’d seen this book before and was very intrigued. I love history. I’ve taught this subject several times for homeschool as each of my kids passed through American history in 5th and 8th grades. I’ve done some additional reading just for my own interest, including parts of Lewis’s journals, which are free for Kindle, thought they are a bit tedious for pleasure reading. And I watched a fabulous documentary of the journey by Ken Burns (which just so happens to be free on Amazon with a Prime membership—American Lives, Season 1, Episodes 12-13). But I’ve never read this book. I’ve wanted to. I finally bought it after reading another Roland Smith novel that I was thoroughly impressed with (Peak).
So, did I love it? Well, not as I loved Peak. A middle grade narrative voiced by a dog just doesn’t have the same resonance as a young adult novel, no matter how epic the subject matter. But I did like it. A lot. It’s engaging and eminently readable. I now wish I had used this book in my homeschool classroom. It definitely has a place on the school shelf. I believe middle graders interested in the historic journey will thoroughly enjoy this one, and I think it will pique the interest of those less inclined to enjoy history.
The journey, which spanned two and a half years, has been pared down extensively in this book. The expedition was a scientific one, in which Lewis and Clark collected and cataloged hundreds of new species, mapped thousands of miles of topography, and finally debunked the myth of a navigable Northwest Passage through the continent. But this novel primarily relates the adventures the men—and the dog—found along the way. These include meeting new Indian tribes—not all of whom were friendly—grizzly bear attacks, becoming lost at the fork in the Missouri, and the night Seaman saved the camp from a rampaging buffalo. The story even gives readers a taste of Lewis’s (probably bi-polar) personality and the struggle he had with depression and self-depreciation. (It does not give any hint of his suicide a few years later.)
The one thing I thought could have been improved upon, because it sometimes proved confusing, was the story’s layout. The book starts after the conclusion of the journey, with two members of the corps back out West, reading one of Captain Lewis’s journals with Seaman and two Indians listening in. (This extra journal is fictional, though the two corps members really did head back into the wild after the journey’s conclusion. The two Indians mentioned are also actual historical characters. There is no evidence that Seaman was left behind as related in the book, however. Here’s an interesting article on what probably really happened to him.) The journal entries are easy to identify as they are dated and italicized—and based on the actual published ones. But the narrative gets confusing. Sometimes Seaman is expounding on what happened in the past. Other times the action jumps to the present, with comments or events taking place between in the readers. A few times it took me a moment to find my bearings. It is my only criticism. Perhaps the paperback version does a better job making these jumps apparent. My Kindle does not show indented text well.
Regardless, I think The Captain’s Dog, particular Seaman’s voice, makes this historic and monumental undertaking accessible to kids. Highly recommended as a curriculum accompaniment or as pleasure reading for middle graders who love history, adventure, or dog stories.