The Mapmaker's Wife


West Maui Book Club Discussion Questions

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Page numbers refer to Paperback edition January 2005

1) All indications from the title of the non-fiction point to the travails of Isabel Godin (nee Grameson) and yet, the narrative encompasses a much broader horizon. In effect, you end up with two main stories with multiple subplots: the larger-scale race between Spain, Portugal and France to determine the shape of the earth, the French expedition and its struggles, Jean Godin’s 20-year exile of sorts, Isabel’s separation and eventual trek, and of course, the Amazon, its people and environment. Of all of these stories, which interested you most and why?

2) The author provides an incredibly deep background of scientific exploration, going back as far as Hipparchus and up through the Roman Empire instead of starting with the French Academy in the 1700’s, which is where the story begins for the reader. Did all this background help set the stage for you in understanding the situations that the explorers and Isabel found themselves?

From the author (10/23/13):
In terms of why the deep background instead of starting with the French Academy in the early 1700s and moving forward . . . well, if I were going to rewrite the book, I might actually do it that way, and skip some of the deep background. For me, I got interested in the deep background for two reasons: In terms of the scientific nature of the venture, I wanted to place this expedition inside a larger history of science context, just to show why this enterprise would so fascinate scientists in the 18th century. Otherwise, readers might not see why it was seen, at the time, as such an important expedition to have mounted. But this may be my own obsessive-compulsive nature at work too.
For a similar reason, I thought it was important to understand the culture of 18th century Peru, and in particular a woman's place in it. If you trace it back to the Moorish culture (and then to the other romantic tales), you can see just how extraordinary it was for Isabel Godin to make that journey. In addition, the actual details of her life are pretty sparse, and so the way to get some sense of her, is really to see her as a woman in this particular culture, and what that would have meant for her childhood, why she would have been married at such a young age, her relationship to God, and a woman's role in Peru at that time. It was a way to know Isabel, in essence, because she was breaking with a tradition rooted in a distant past.
I know some readers think I went overboard on this deep history, and of course we do try to learn from each book we write. And so, if I were to rewrite this book, I would do it slightly differently, and I would spend less time on the past (but not forgo it altogether.)

3) Thinking in terms of Isabel as the first elite-class woman to make this transcontinental journey on 10/01/1769, what does this story say about early feminism in a male dominated society? And in particular, Peru?

4) Isabel would travel 6 months and over 3,000 miles to reach her husband, Jean Godin, during which time she is alone and wandering near death for 8-10 days before indigenous Indians save her life and deliver her to a mission where she can complete her journey. What does this say of her convictions? Her faith (pg 270-273)? Her spirit and commitment to marriage?

5) Jean Godin was often left to his own devices as well during much of his contributory work for the expedition as a signal carrier (although it is noted he might have been accompanied by a slave). Discuss how he fared. What drove him in particular? How about the other scientists who ventured off alone, such as Charles-Marie La Condamine (Pg 90: spending 8 days wandering on the road to Esmeraldas) and Pierre Bouguer at multiple times?

6) Toward the end of Isabel’s ordeal, she rewards the Indian women with two large gold chains that she wore the entire time she wandered through the jungle. Did you find it incredible that – in the first place – she wore those gold chains the entire time when she is near death, emaciated and almost naked and surprising – in the second place – that the priest, jealous of such a gift to those women, took it from them in exchange for some cheap cotton?

7) Preceding France’s success in determining the earth’s size and shape, the larger debate had been between the staunch supporters of either fellow countryman Rene Descartes (pg 22-23) and England’s Sir Isaac Newton (pg 24-26). In the end, France proved that Newton – the Englishman- was correct, first by Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis and his expedition to Lapland and then conclusively 8 years later by La Condamine in Peru.

When Maupertuis first declared his findings (pg 126), the “old guard” at the French Academy of Sciences was outraged. In particular, Jacques Cassini, who accused Maupertuis of “trying to destroy in one year the work his family had taken fifty years to create” for it was the Cassini’s who had determined the earth was cinched at the equator and elongated, not flattened at the poles (pg 20-21). With so much at stake, did you find it any wonder that they whole-heartedly disputed Maupertuis’s findings to cause enough doubt and dissention that it would be left to La Condamine’s measurements? “The controversy was still alive.” (pg 127)

8) Discuss the significance of how the smallest of global pinpoints – one degree of latitude -- developed into a full-fledged cornucopia of discovery for all of mankind.

9) Much is discussed about slave labor in North America, but were you surprised at the level of treatment the indigenous Indians suffered as slaves in South America by the conquering nations?

10) What do you know of the female warriors, known as the "Amazons", who allegedly cut off their breasts to be better archers or killed their sons at birth? Was this a male fantasy or reality (pg 190)? And what of the men Sir Walter Raleigh who went in search of El Dorado and the fabled and fearless tribe of headless men known as the Ewaiponoma (pg 57)? What about the Jibaros Indians as man eaters and head shrinkers (pg 186-187)?

11) With all the incredible Amazonian animals mentioned and feared in this non-fiction, did you find it at all curious that there is no mention whatsoever of piranha?

12) Which was your most fearful animal of the Amazon? As a swimmer, for me it was the candiru (pg 249) – a catfish, “thin as a catheter” that would swim up body orifices and fix “itself by opening an array of sharp fin spines, triggering almost unendurable pain.” There were also blood-sucking leeches, venomous stingrays, electric eels, alligators, anacondas, boa constrictors, pit vipers and on and on. That said, much was also made of the insects including various types of ants (remember the marabunta in Charlton Heston’s 1954 movie “The Naked Jungle”?). Other insects and animals include: fleas, mosquitoes, botflies, flies, gnats, monkeys, bats, cats, chiggers, scorpions, tarantulas, bees, wasps, assassin bugs, deadly caterpillars, etc. The list is practically endless!

13) Discuss the many other scientific and natural discoveries this expedition brought the world, including: Cinnamon, cocoa, rubber, oil, poisons, remedies, emeralds, gold and silver, platinum, etc. And diseases: malaria, small pox, yellow fever and their cures.

14) Above all of the discoveries, experiences, races against other nations with their jealousies, suspicions, and discriminations, we owe much to this expedition, wouldn’t you agree? For from it came the most important of decisions: the conclusive shape of the earth and a map of the Amazon.

15) Once safely in France, Jean Godin is asked to provide La Condamine with a narrative of Isabel’s journey (pg 286) that he provides in a 7,000-word response and you can read in English at The West Maui Book Club hopes you will take the time read it and glean from it the time, place, and sentiment from which it was written.

16) To date, there are two statues of Isabel Godin: one in Cajabamba – her colonial home - and one in Riobamba. There is also a South American field bird called the “Champelix godina” dedicated in her honor by 19th century naturalist, Charles Bonaparte.

17) Something new since the book: Author, Robert Whitaker, writes on 10/23/13 that the movie, still in the development phase, will be directed by Brad Anderson who has made a number of movies. Wikipedia lists: 10 feature films, 1 short, 12 episodes of “Fringe” and other works.

Questions posed and posted by Elaine Gallant for discussion November 11, 2013