- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 5, 2004

Don’t be put off by the sensationalist title of Robert Whitaker’s latest book, The Mapmaker’s Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon (Basic Books, $25, 352 pages, illus.). The woman in question — the Peruvian wife of a young assistant to French scientists on an 18th-century expedition to South America — doesn’t enter the story in a serious way until page 230.

To name the book for her does a disservice to the first two-thirds of the narrative, which is about the harrowing experiences of the scientists (one was murdered, another died from fever, and death was always close to the rest) in the course of a mission to determine the precise shape of the earth.

What the French referred to as “the greatest expedition ever known” when it began in 1735 proved to be a scientific triumph because the team didn’t limit its work to precisely measuring a degree of latitude at the equator.

Working under appalling conditions (which ranged from altitude sickness on the frozen summits of the Andean peaks to vampire bats and stinging ants in the rainforest), the scientists proved to be “men of the Enlightenment at play.”

In addition to carrying out incredibly accurate scientific measurements, they recorded acute observations of social mores and “investigated the climate of the Andes, the expansion of metals in response to variation in temperature, the speed of sound at high altitudes, the rocks and plants, and Inca ruins.”

Mr. Whitaker, a science journalist, tells a remarkable story that suggests a cross between Dava Sobel’s “Longitude” and an account of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The love story here — the husband’s two decades of futile appeals to authorities in France to be allowed to return up the Amazon into Spanish territory to retrieve his wife, and indeed, how his wife survived her journey to him — sometimes seems less like the focal point than an afterthought.

The author writes as if he had been there, for he has immersed himself in primary sources, including accounts by four members of the expedition, and personally retraced much of the travel across the Andes and down the Amazon described in the book. He trails the team of scientists through a decade of hardships and setbacks, recounting their achievements in the context of French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonial rivalries in South America. The mix is very rich and not always easy to follow.

As for the “mapmaker’s wife,” Isabel Godin, her story — recorded by her husband, Jean, in a letter written shortly after she alone of her party of 10 (plus 31 porters) completed the transcontinental journey — is breathtaking.

After most of the party had deserted her, and her two brothers and a nephew had starved to death in the jungle, Isabel, half-clothed, wandered alone for eight days, sustained by prayer and her sense of purpose. As the author puts it, “She waited for God to take her. But then, in some mysterious way, she was called to her feet by the image of her husband and a voice calling out to her.”

In the end, she encountered four Indians who nursed her back to health, and the couple eventually made their way to France, where Jean was finally recognized as an “official geographer to the King.” They both lived on until 1792.

As the English printer who published Isabel’s account in 1773 said, it represented “as extraordinary a series of perils, adventures, and escapes as are anywhere to be found on record.” The same could apply to the scientists’ story so admirably recounted here. “The Mapmaker’s Wife” is copiously illustrated with contemporaneous drawings and maps.

• • •

The publication of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” in 1979 reminded America that its astronauts were human beings and not gods, men with faults as well as courage. Now Neal Thompson, a freelance journalist living in North Carolina, has singled out one of the original seven astronauts for an engaging study, Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard (Crown, $27.50, 399 pages).

Born in New Hampshire, the son of a local banker, young Shepard became fascinated with flight. He secured an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he ran up an impressive number of disciplinary infractions but graduated to enter the Navy air service.

As a fighter pilot he was repeatedly reprimanded for reckless stunting, but gained such a reputation for his flying skill that he became one of an elite group of Navy test pilots. One colleague called Shepard “the best aviator I’ve ever known.”

Shepard married a childhood sweetheart, Louise Brewer, in 1945. Few wives would prove as tolerant as Louise, for Shepard was a flagrant womanizer. A fellow test pilot recalled, “He had a beautiful wife and family … but [sex] was his compulsion.”

Although the astronauts were portrayed to the public as a team, Mr. Thompson makes clear that there was cutthroat competition among them for opportunities to fly. It was Shepard who beat out John Glenn and five others for the dangerous honor of becoming — by means of a 15-minute suborbital flight in May 1961 — the first American in space. Extended delays on the launching pad led Shepard to insist that NASA “light this candle!”

For a time, a severe illness that affected Shepard’s balance threatened to end his career as an astronaut. But Shepard rejoined the Apollo program, and succeeded in having himself moved ahead of other astronauts for a flight to the moon.

The demands were rigorous; the author reminds us that the Apollo astronauts “had to know how to navigate their spacecraft using only the stars and moon … They had to spend a minimum of 240 hours in the classroom, absorbing Ph.D.-level lessons on meteorology, physics, rocket propulsion, flight mechanics, and computers.”

When Shepard finally reached the moon, it was on one of the later missions. John Glenn, among others, had beaten him there. But it was Shepard who carried with him a retractable golf club with which he hit what may be the most famous golf shot of all time. This “moon shot” guaranteed Shepard a welcome at golf clubs all over America in his retirement. He hobnobbed with celebrities until his death from leukemia in 1998.

Mr. Thompson observes that being an astronaut carried a price, noting, “Some astronauts retired from NASA and discovered that they had become complete strangers to their children.” Alan Shepard comes through as ambitious, cold, and often selfish. He also comes through as competent, determined, and brave.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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