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SPECIAL SECTION: Children's Books : THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY OF LEWIS & CLARK by Rhoda Blumberg (Lothrop, Lee & Shephard : $15; 144 pp.; ages 10 and up)

May 22, 1988|Kristiana Gregory | Gregory frequently reviews young adult and children's books for The Times. She is the author of "Jenny of the Tetons" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)

"The Journals of Lewis and Clark , " while probably the most important narrative from our Western heritage, is an intimidating book for young readers: Details are tedious and the explorers' misspellings are hard to follow. Thus, it is a pleasure to tell parents and teachers about Rhoda Blumberg's splendid alternative. She has excerpted from DeVoto's edition and, citing 24 other references, rounded out this adventure into one far more approachable.

Blumberg uses the same handsome format as her "Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun," which won a Newbery Honor in 1985. Dozens of black-and-white illustrations, from cameo-size to two-page spreads, fill the pages, and wide margins spare the reader from overload. Museum paintings, artifacts and photos of the hand-written journals lend a visual authenticity not possible with straight narrative. A fascinating drawing by Clark shows how the Flathead Indians compressed their babies' skulls on cradle boards.

Another advantage to this overview is that Blumberg comments on ironies unseen by Lewis and Clark themselves: "They were arming Indians with war weapons at the same time they were trying to convince them to live in peace." Also, the explorers assumed that the West Coast Indians were "dull-witted thieves" because they didn't use sign language and their words seemed gibberish.

The saddest of ironies is that Lewis returned to civilization a celebrated hero, yet three years later, at the age of 35, he committed suicide. Unfortunately, his esteemed appointment as governor of the Louisiana Territory forced him into the miserable role of bureaucrat. Alcoholism, bankruptcy and failed romances may also have contributed to his "state of mental derangement."

The first three chapters tell of pre-trip excitement and headaches. The boat builders, according to Lewis, were slowpokes and "incorrigible drunkards." Supplies included red body paint, a collapsible canoe, 50 dozen laxative doses and a four-volume dictionary.

Blumberg's afterword elaborates on the lives of Sacagawea, an Indian woman who served as a guide, and other members of the expedition; chapter notes, a bibliography and index complete her study. She is to be praised for such a friendly effort.

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