Cover image for The mapmaker's wife : a true tale of love, murder, and survival in the Amazon
The mapmaker's wife : a true tale of love, murder, and survival in the Amazon
Whitaker, Robert.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Basic Books, [2004]

Physical Description:
xiv, 352 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
A Sunday in 1769 -- Not quite round -- A daughter of Peru -- The mapmakers -- Voyage to Quito -- Measuring the baseline -- High-altitude science -- Death in the afternoon -- Marriage in Quito -- Down the Amazon -- A continent apart -- Lost on the Bobonaza -- Into the jungle -- Deliverance -- Saint Amand.
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 9.4 17.0 81084.
Corporate Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F2546 .W46 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
F2546 .W46 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
F2546 .W46 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
F2546 .W46 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
F2546 .W46 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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In the early years of the 18th century, a band of French scientists set off on a daring, decade-long expedition to South America in a race to measure the precise shape of the earth. Like Lewis and Clark's exploration of the American West, their incredible mission revealed the mysteries of a little-known continent to a world hungry for discovery. Scaling 16,000foot mountains in the Peruvian Andes, and braving jaguars, pumas, insects, and vampire bats in the jungle, the scientists barely completed their mission. One was murdered, another perished from fever, and a third-Jean Godin-nearly died of heartbreak. At the expedition's end, Jean and his Peruvian wife, Isabel Gramesón, became stranded at opposite ends of the Amazon, victims of a tangled web of international politics. Isabel's solo journey to reunite with Jean after their calamitous twenty-year separation was so dramatic that it left all of 18th-century Europe spellbound. Her survival-unprecedented in the annals of Amazon exploration-was a testament to human endurance, female resourcefulness, and the power of devotion.Drawing on the original writings of the French mapmakers, as well as his own experience retracing Isabel's journey, acclaimed writer Robert Whitaker weaves a riveting tale rich in adventure, intrigue, and scientific achievement. Never before told, The Mapmaker's Wife is an epic love story that unfolds against the backdrop of "the greatest expedition the world has ever known."

Author Notes

Robert Whitaker is an American journalist and author, writing primarily about medicine, science, and history. He has written on and off for the Boston Globe and in 2001, he wrote his first book Mad in America about psychiatric research and medications, the domains of some of his earlier journalism. Articles that Whitaker co-wrote won the 1998 George Polk Award for Medical Writing and the 1998 National Association of Science Writers¿ Science in Society Journalism Award for best magazine article. A 1998 Boston Globe article series he co-wrote on psychiatric research was a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

In April 2011, IRE announced that his book, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, had won its award as the best investigative journalism book of 2010. In 2015 it became a New York Times bestseller.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Only an exceptional life could connect the Enlightenment salons of Paris with the tribal villages of the Amazon jungle. Peruvian-born Isabel Grameson lived such a life, and now a prizewinning science writer has retraced its improbable course in a riveting narrative. That story begins with eighteenth-century physicists debating theoretical issues that only observers positioned in South America can resolve. But the French academics who set out to make these observations soon leave behind the empyreal world of pure formulas: only by traversing unmapped rivers, scaling Andean peaks, enduring vexatious insects, and pacifying murderous Peruvians do these resolute savants obtain the longitudinal data they seek. Ultimately, though, these scientific adventurers endure the disappointment of seeing their work validate a British rather than a French paradigm! Finally, too, the expedition sees all its scientific valor eclipsed by the heroism of one beautiful young Peruvian woman--Isabel Grameson--who marries one of the group's cartographers. For it is this woman who--when cruelly separated from her husband--braves perils far beyond those faced by the scientists. Readers can only marvel at how Isabel survives a rain-forest journey (personally repeated, afoot and afloat, by Whitaker) that claims the lives of all of her companions and leaves her stranded and presumed dead. A rare story, taut with intellectual controversy, romantic passion, and harrowing danger. --Bryce Christensen Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

As was customary for girls from elite families in 18th-century colonial Peru, Isabel Grames?n was barely a teenager when she married Jean Godin, a Frenchman visiting the territory as an assistant on a scientific expedition. Planning to bring his wife back to France, Godin trekked across South America to check in with the French colonial authorities, but was refused permission to return up the Amazon back into Spanish territory to retrieve Isabel. So they remained a continent apart for 20 years until 1769, when Isabel started making her way east. Her party ran aground on the Bobonaza River (which feeds into the Amazon), and though almost everyone perished, she managed to survive alone in the rainforest for weeks. Although science journalist Whitaker doesn't directly refer to his own modern trek following Isabel's route down the Bobonaza, his descriptions of the conditions she would have encountered convey his familiarity with the territory, often quite viscerally, ("There are giant stinging ants, ants that bite, and ants that both bite and sting"). His account of the French expedition that brought Godin to Peru and then separated him from his new wife is equally vivid, with exhilarating discoveries and petty squabbles-and richly illustrated with contemporary drawings. Though an early, long digression tracing the history of attempts to measure the size of the earth may establish the context a little too solidly, making some readers impatient, they'll certainly be hooked once the story really begins. Isabel and Jean's adventures are riveting enough on their own, and colonial South America's largely unfamiliar history adds another compelling layer to this well-crafted yarn. Agent, Jane Dystel. (Apr.) Forecast: Whitaker's book deserves a large audience, and it will benefit from an author tour, ad campaign and NPR feature campaign. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, Whitaker (Mad in America) here combines a carefully documented account of the 1736-44 French Academy of Science-sponsored expedition of Charles-Marie de La Condamine to Peru to measure "the distance of one degree of latitude at the equator" with an equally well-documented story of Isabel Godin, who survived, alone and against all odds, a perilous journey through the Upper Amazon to become reunited with her mapmaker husband, Jean Godin, the youngest member of the La Condamine expedition. Although the interweaving of these two accounts can make for slow going there is a 20-year hiatus between Isabel Godin's ordeal and the outcome of La Condamine's somewhat politically suspect expedition Whitaker's diligence (both in seeking out original sources and in personally retracing Isabel's journey) results in a valuable addition to a little-explored period in South American history. Particularly interesting are the insights Whitaker gives us into France's late entry into the contest still being waged for New World riches. The nine-page bibliography (which includes three pages of primary sources), backed up by 24 pages of notes, is well worth the price of admission. Recommended for academic libraries and large public libraries with an interest in 17th- and 18th-century scientific exploration. Robert C. Jones, Warrensburg, MO (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-Whitaker merges a gripping account of scientific exploration with an amazing story of survival in the wilderness. For those who think of the Enlightenment only in terms of sedate Paris salons, this book will alter that image forever. The best minds of Europe in the 1730s knew that the Earth was not perfectly round, but the exact size and shape were in hot debate. Someone figured out that to nail down the answer certain data was needed, and that the best place to get that data was at the equator. Given the technological and political realities of the time, that meant one place: Peru. A scientific expedition was organized in Paris and sent to the New World in 1735. After 10 years of incredible hardships and setbacks, it accomplished its mission (and a host of other enlightenments along the way). As captivating as this story proved to be, another developed: a young member of the party met, fell in love with, and married an upper-class, 13-year-old Peruvian girl. Due to a tangled swirl of unfortunate events, this couple became separated for 20 years (beginning just before the birth of their only child). Finally, in 1769, Isabel Grames-n set off on a trek through the most inhospitable of jungles to rejoin her husband in French Guiana. The author's depiction of that harrowing journey is the crowning jewel of this outstanding volume.-Robert Saunderson, Berkeley Public Library, CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



A Sunday in 1769 Today the Ecuadorian village of Cajabamba, which is about 110 miles south of Quito, is a place of little note. The Andean town stretches for a mile or so along the Pan American Highway, and most of the activity in the village centers on the bus stop, where vendors are lined up selling a mix of fruit, corn-on-the-cob, soup, and roasted meats. Tourists passing this way, if armed with a particularly good guidebook, might pause just long enough to scan a hillside on the north side of town, searching for a scar left by the great earthquake of 1797, which sent a flow of mud down upon the adobe homes below and killed thousands. At that time, this was a very different place. More than 16,000 people lived here, and Riobamba-as it was then called-was one of the most graceful cities in colonial Peru, home to musicians, artists, and wealthy landowners. But after the earthquake, the survivors picked up and rebuilt their town thirteen miles to the northeast, and old Riobamba gradually faded from memory. All that physically remains of the prosperous colonial city are a few ruins on the west side of Cajabamba. However, there is one other faint echo of the past that can be found in Cajabamba. From the center of town, next to where the buses idle and the vendors linger, one can look up a long street heading east up a hill and spot a small statue. It sits in front of a school, a gold-painted bust of a rather stern-looking woman. The monument is in disrepair-the stone base is marred by graffiti, the gold paint is chipped and flaked, and the inscription is not quite readable--and few people in Cajabamba can say who the lady looking out over their town is or why she might have deserved a statue. However, in the late eighteenth century, the story of Isabel Godin became so well known that it left all of Europe spellbound. The statue was erected at the site of her colonial home, and thus it would have been from here, on the morning of October 1, 1769, that she began her most remarkable journey. On that day, which was a Sunday, the dusty streets of Riobamba began to stir at an unusually early hour. Most mornings the town awoke slowly, the villagers waiting for the equatorial sun to chase away the nighttime chill. But this day was different. From the moment that dawn broke, people began coming out of their adobe homes, and soon many were lining up along the street that led north out of town. The wealthier women had even dressed up for the occasion, picking out their finest silk clothing to wear, and were gathered in small groups, whispering in disbelief at what was about to pass. Isabel Godin was heading off into the Amazon. Everyone understood her reason for going. She hoped to rejoin her husband, Jean, who was living on the northern coast of South America, in French Guiana. He had been a member of a French scientific expedition that had come to the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1736, Jean and the others hiking up and down the Andes for nearly eight years in search of an answer to a question so abstruse that few of the local people could grasp why they had come. Even so, the villagers of Riobamba had welcomed the French scientists into their midst, more so than any other community in the viceroyalty, and after the expedition had come to an end, Isabel and Jean had lived for a time-and happily so-in Riobamba. But then, through the twists and turns of fate and the cruel politics of the time, they had become separated, Jean stranded in French Guiana and unable to return to the Spanish colony. They had now been apart for twenty years. But travel from the Andes across the Amazon? No woman had ever dared to make such a trek. Indeed, this was a journey that only a few men had ever made. When the most famous son of the town, Pedro Maldonado, had contemplated such a journey twenty-five years earlier, his family--as a friend of his later wrote--"had sought to detain him by any means." Maldonado's colleagues warned him that traveling this "unknown and dangerous route" was "imprudent and reckless," and that they personally viewed such a journey with "panicked terror." Missionaries who traveled through the upper Amazon helped fuel such fear, for inevitably they returned with tales of how hard and perilous such travel could be. The trip that lay ahead of Isabel stretched more than 3,000 miles. Even if all went well, it would take her six months. The route that she would follow east out of Riobamba would skirt around towering Mount Tungurahua, a volcano known to spit fire and rocks into the sky. The path would then disappear into a deep canyon and tumble quickly out of the Andes into a gloomy rain forest filled with the nerve-wracking cries of howler monkeys. From there, she would have to travel by dugout canoe down the turbulent headwaters of the Amazon, passing through a jungle that was home to clouds of insects and populated by any number of poisonous snakes and wild beasts, including the much feared American "tiger," which was believed to have quite an appetite for human flesh. Other hazards, wrote one eighteenth-century explorer who had gone this route, included "naked savages" who "eat their prisoners." In the center of town, the scene was growing ever more chaotic. Isabel had hired thirty-one Indian porters to transport her goods on the first leg of the journey, overland to the Rio Bobonaza, and they were busy packing a long line of mules. Isabel's traveling party had grown, too. Her two brothers had decided to come along to assure her safety, and one had decided-in a burst of questionable judgment-to bring along his eldest son, figuring that this would provide an opportunity to take him to Europe, where he could get a better education. Rumors of her impending trek had also spread far beyond Riobamba and had brought two strangers to her door, a French doctor and his traveling companion. They had been making their way along the Peruvian coast and now saw a trip across the Amazon as a more intriguing way to return to France. Both groups were bringing along servants as well: Isabel and her two brothers had two maids and a Negro slave, while the French doctor had one personal attendant, bringing the total number in Isabel's party to forty-one. Isabel had been advised to travel as lightly as possible-advice that she found difficult to heed. There was the gear that they needed for the journey-blankets, ponchos, and food--and her many possessions. She was, after all, now moving to France. Fancy dresses, skirts, shawls, gold-buckled shoes, lace-trimmed underwear, and silver-studded belts were just a start. Next came the silver bowls, the fine china, the gold rosaries, the earrings set with emeralds, and various fancy linens. One reed basket after another was filled to the brim, the mules braying as cinches were tightened and the baskets heaved onto their backs. Yet amid this confusion and bustle, Isabel appeared the picture of elegance and charm. She had stepped from her house that morning looking as though she were planning an evening at a lively dance. She wore a light-colored dress that billowed out from her waist, dainty cotton shoes, several silver bracelets, and two gold necklaces. Her appearance reflected who she was: a Riobamban woman who had lived all of her adult life in this village, rarely traveling far from home and enjoying the luxuries that came with being part of the elite class in colonial Peru. She was forty-one years old, a little plump, and the first streaks of white could be seen in her coal-black hair. She, like the other women of Riobamba, had simply dressed up for the occasion. At last, the train of pack mules began to move. The procession of animals and men headed slowly down the town's main street, kicking up so much dust that Isabel's friends, waving to her as she went by, held scarves to their mouths. The mules brayed, Isabel's two brothers and several of the others rode horses, and Isabel drew up the rear. She was carried aloft in a sedan chair, the Indian porters having been given orders to jostle her as little as possible. Excerpted from The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon by Robert Whitaker All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.