Mapmaker’s Wife

The Mapmaker’s Wife

by Robert Whitaker

Finished Feb 24, 2007

About the French meridian expedition of 1750, to Peru. A dozen scientists went to Quito to measure a degree of latitude to determine the shape of the earth. They thought to be gone 3 years. It was an international story; the quest was hotly pursued by various scientists and mathmeticians. Jean Godin, the lowly assistant whose wife, Isabel to whom the book’s title refers, returned to France 40 years later. The travails suffered by the scientists while performing their measurements make Lewis and Clark’s journey seem like a stroll. Then there is the trip of Isabel and her party down the Andes and lost in the upper Amazon, near the Bobonaza river, 30 miles from Kapawi, where my tour group stayed in the fall of 2006. What an ordeal. She was sustained by God, and hope and the purpose of meeting her husband, Jean, after a 20 year separation. She had to make herself survive, to honor God for having saved her to that point. This realization came as she lay dying of hunger near the corpses of her two brothers who had succumbed.

Mr. Whitaker, the author, performed a substantial labor in the authorship of this book. The research on topics such as colonial history, European politics, botany, geographic study, and the history of science was detailed and extensive. The title was not indicative of the substance. The book was really two stories, one of the French expedition, and one of Isabel’s harrowing journey. The first story led to the second, tied together by Jean, the assistant to the expedition and husband to Isabel. The frequent side-trips into fields of science were interesting, and forgivable as such, though tangential to the main themes.

Had I read the hazards that Isabel faced in the Bobonaza region, near Kapawi lodge, I may have waived that trip! Bot flies, vampire bats, Jiborara Indians, rapidly rising rivers. Our days at Kapawi didn’t verify that the hazards were quite that extreme. But maybe we were there in the season when mosquitoes were less dense. We didn’t see the seas of ants described. Still her trials were without a doubt more severe than anyone could wish on their worst enemy.

I am sending this book to Carlos Lara of Cuenca. I was given my copy by Sister Suzan Strobel. She and Gary, her husband, were part of our travel group to Kapawi.