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  • Written by Karl Iagnemma
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  • The Expeditions
  • Written by Karl Iagnemma
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Written by Karl IagnemmaAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Karl Iagnemma


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: December 26, 2007
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-440-33738-6
Published by : The Dial Press Random House Group
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From Karl Iagnemma, recipient of the Paris Review Plimpton Prize, comes this fierce and gorgeous novel, the story of an estranged father and son’s unlikely wanderings through the Upper Peninsula of nineteenth-century Michigan.

The year is 1844. Sixteen-year-old runaway Elisha Stone has turned up in Detroit, a hardscrabble frontier town on the edge of the civilized world. Lighting out on a surveying expedition for the vast unknown wilderness of the northern peninsula, Elisha pens a heartfelt letter to his mother in Newell, Massachusetts. But it is Elisha’s estranged father, the Reverend William Edward Stone, who opens the envelope. Grief-stricken by the recent death of his wife—a death Elisha could not have known about—Reverend Stone is jolted into action. He must find his son. What follows is a powerful narrative about the complex love between fathers and sons and an evocative portrait of an era of faith, wonder, and violence. A first novel of uncommon wisdom, The Expeditions is the confirmation of an extraordinary talent.


Chapter One

The appointment was at ten o’clock on Lafayette Street, on the city’s west side, and Elisha stepped from his boardinghouse at six that morning into a gauzy gray mist. Draft horses slapped down the muddy street, hauling drays loaded with potatoes and cabbages. He strolled down the sidewalk to Jefferson Avenue, drank a mug of milk as he listened to a newsboy call out the morning’s headlines: White woman elopes with Negro servant to Windsor! Settlers burned alive in Shelby by savage Chippewas! He felt a familiar nervous chill at the city’s rush and clamor. The air smelled sweetly foul, like burning trash.

He walked down Jefferson to Woodward Avenue then up to the Military Square, where a group of men were unloading red lacquered trunks from a caravan of weather-worn buggies. A handbill tacked to a message board at the square’s entrance read:

traveling exhibition of fabulous beasts l. gasperi—animal trainer extraordinaire see camels from arabia—elephants from siam— llamas from the bolivian mountains admission fee: one dime

As Elisha watched, one of the men unlatched the door of a high-sided wagon and led a frail, shaggy camel by a rope knotted around its neck. The animal stepped gingerly, twisting its long neck to gaze at its surroundings. Elisha drew a notebook from his vest pocket and licked a stub of pencil, sketched the animal’s head and oddly humped back. The camel’s handler glanced over his shoulder and called, “Hey boyo, no free looks! Come back tonight, you want to see!”

Elisha started up Michigan Avenue into the Irish quarter and its cramped, hustling streets. At Sixth Street a group of women were singing choral tunes around a donation basket. He paused to watch them: two skinny, black-haired sopranos and a squat, sleepy-looking alto. The boy was sixteen years old and his thoughts were almost entirely of women: their hair, their powder smells, their fleeting glances on the sidewalk. Young women in shop windows and ladies in broughams and girls strolling arm in arm down the avenue. The alto cut her gaze to Elisha and he ducked away.

He hurried down Sixth Street toward the river, quickening his pace as he emerged at the wharf. He continued southward past a row of shanties until he came to a stagnant stretch of sedge and driftwood. Elisha pulled off his shoes and sat on a stone at the river’s edge, careful not to muddy his trousers. He leaned forward and rested his chin on his knees. From his position he could barely hear the hoofbeats on Woodbridge Avenue, but despite the quiet Elisha could not settle his nerves. Pond skaters tickled among the sedge, their passage visible as faint dimples in the river’s surface. A merganser coasted toward the boy then angled upriver. Elisha withdrew his notebook and sketched the scene, his thoughts slowing, the city’s noise fading to nothing. He worked long after the bell at St. Anne’s had tolled nine o’clock.

He rose feeling wonderfully calm. He started up Seventh until he reached Lafayette, then entered a shop with its window painted to read O. Chocron, Clothier. He purchased a five-cent collar from the frowning proprietor, then stood before a tall mirror and buttoned the collar beneath his chin, the stiff linen chafing his neck. His own figure in the glass annoyed him: the cowlicked hair, the high, pale forehead, the pockmarked cheeks without even a hint of beard. A frightened boy in a man’s clothes, certainly not a fellow to be reckoned with, certainly not one to be entrusted with an important task.

He exhaled deeply and attempted a fierce smile, and for a moment the boy in the mirror disappeared.

Thirty-one Lafayette Street was a two-story mansion with broad double doors and a columned porch, an orange-tiled roof topped by a cupola. Elisha stood at the street’s edge for some time. He had expected a surveyor’s cottage but this was far grander, the home of a judge or senator. At last he straightened his cuffs and set his hat square, then mounted the steps and tugged the bellpull.

A tall Negro girl in a white apron opened the door, glanced at the boy’s shoes and hat. “If you here about the expedition you haves to wait. Mr. Brush is busy just now.”

Elisha nodded.

“Follow me.” She led him into a dim study and motioned toward a velvet wing chair. “Don’t you touch anything.”

He nodded again. His gaze followed the girl from the room.

Blue linen draperies filtered the morning light and lent the room a petrified quality. A carved walnut desk sat in the corner, covered with books and scrolled maps, a pair of brass rulers. Beside the desk stood an oak bookshelf filled with leather-bound volumes: sets of Shakespeare, Milton, Gibbon, the spines looking as though they’d never been creased. Bragging books, Elisha thought, for displaying instead of reading. The room smelled of soot and candlewax.

He rose and paced before the marble mantel: three pink conch shells sat beside a rosewood clock; beside the clock was a gleaming brass instrument with a jumble of thumbscrews and vanes and eyepieces projecting from a circular base. Beside the instrument stood an angled block draped with red silk, displaying four gold coins bearing a man’s profile in crude relief—Roman, Elisha figured, or Greek. He took up a coin and tilted it toward the window. The face was so worn that the only clear feature was the line of a mouth, which seemed to be etched in a wry smile.

Floorboards squeaked in the hallway and Elisha replaced the coin then perched on the wing chair. A man entered the room and the boy bolted upright.

He was younger than Elisha had expected, with long brown hair combed back from his temples, a clean-shaven jaw, watery blue eyes beneath a sharp brow. Mr. Silas A. Brush, surveyor and landlooker, hero of the Second War for Independence. The man’s hand, when Elisha shook it, was rough as a corn husk. Brush said, “Well! You look barely old enough to dress yourself.”

“I’m sixteen years old, sir.”

Brush squinted at Elisha as if measuring the truth of his claim. He was wearing a black frock coat over a black satin waistcoat, a stiff black cravat. Pinned to the man’s lapel was a pear-shaped sapphire. Like a minister with a wealthy wife, Elisha thought. The stone was the precise hue of Brush’s eyes.

“I trust you’re not aiming to join a storybook adventure. I will disappoint you by saying the expedition won’t be any such thing.”

Elisha nodded.

“Plenty of hard slogs through swamps, suppers of hog and hominy if we’re lucky, beds of pine boughs and creation’s finest dirt. Mosquitoes as big as walnuts. No whiskey or pussy for a hundred miles.”

“Yes sir. I know, sir.”

“You’ll be ridden as hard as a borrowed mule. You’ll lie down tired and wake up exhausted.”

“Yes sir, I know. I’m not expecting any comfort.”

The statement seemed to amuse Mr. Brush. “Then explain me this, young pup: why do you want to join the expedition?”

Because I’m flat busted, Elisha thought to joke, but paused when he noticed the sternness beneath Brush’s grin. So instead he told the man the truth: about the creek behind his father’s house in Newell, a narrow sandy trickle alive with limpets and water boatmen and fat darners, waxwings and wrens and prairie warblers, goldenrod and lilac and willow. As a boy he’d spent his days at the creek’s edge, capturing minnows in his cupped palms to study their glassy scales, their wispy fins, their blank eyes. Other days he sat motionless for hours, until a swallowtail fluttered down to a puddle of sugar water at his feet. He loved the secret beauty of it all, the details that revealed themselves only after long inspection. The creek appeared simple but in fact was as intricate as a symphony. Elisha told Mr. Brush about the first specimen he’d collected, a gnarled brown shell that looked like a nub of tobacco; its odd shape made it seem like a hoax by God on unsuspecting scientists. He told Mr. Brush about the empty shelves in his boyhood bedroom, his desire to see them filled with examples of every species in the world.

When he finished speaking Mr. Brush offered a false smile. “Ambitious goal, wouldn’t you say? The last man to collect every species was Noah.”

“I don’t expect to succeed, sir. Seems a worthy aim, though.”

“It is not a worthy aim. It is a dream. I have no use for moon-eyed dreamers on this expedition.” Brush’s expression softened slightly. “Life is a practical endeavor, my boy.”

“I understand that, indeed I do.” Elisha paused. “I can shoot and handle an axe. I’ve read Say’s and Nuttall’s books a dozen times each. I can identify common trees and birds and the primary rocks, some minerals and gemstones—that sapphire on your lapel, for instance. I can tote as much as a packhorse.”

The man chuckled, then rose with a sigh. He unscrolled a map on the desk and motioned Elisha over: Michigan’s mittenish form divided by neat square survey lines, and above it the upper country, a hollow white sketch save for points labeled Fort Brady and Sault Ste. Marie at the eastern tip, a few rivers winding vaguely inland from the northern shore.

“A portion of the northern peninsula was recently gained by treaty from the savages, and our legislature is keen to learn what it holds. The land is rich in timber—that much is known. I assume you’ve heard reports of copper and silver and gold?”

“Yes sir.”

“Well! We shall not be searching for copper or silver or gold. You do not build railroad tracks and locomotives and cannons from copper or silver or gold. You build them from iron. You see, my boy, fortunes are built from gold. But nations are built from iron.”

Brush’s tone reminded Elisha of an old schoolmaster, a rheumy pedant named Wilkerson. All responses to the man’s questions were incorrect. He’d been fond of wielding a hickory switch on the class’s younger boys.

“The expedition’s secondary purpose is somewhat nebulous. The land office has attached Professor George Tiffin to the expedition. Professor Tiffin has theories about the savages—some notion about their artifacts, how they might explain the mystery of their origins. I suspect he is a moon-eyed dreamer.”

Elisha nodded but said nothing.

“We shall depart from Sault Ste. Marie and canoe to the Chocolate River, here, then return on foot through the interior. We will measure topographical features, examine geological evidence, count timber—none of your minnow and butterfly nonsense. The journey will last twelve weeks. The wage is ten dollars per week, paid upon departure. You say you can shoot?”

“Shot a smoothbore flintlock since I was a boy. I can knock a hole in a watermelon at a hundred yards.”

“A useful skill, should we be menaced by watermelons. You can handle an axe?”

Despite himself Elisha grinned. “I worked two winters in a lumber camp near Manchester—I believe we cut half the pine timber in New Hampshire. So I’m right friendly with both axe and saw.”

“Are you a praying Christian?”

His grin froze. The true answer was clearly the wrong one. He said, “My father is a minister.”

Mr. Brush grunted. He turned to the mantel, and as he did the breath emptied from Elisha’s lungs. He had somehow disappointed the man. Now Brush would thank Elisha for his time, send him away with a stiff handshake. And then back to his boardinghouse room on Orleans Street, with its greasy window and fly-speckled shade, its smell of rotten fish. The boy wiped sweat from his brow.

From the Hardcover edition.
Karl Iagnemma

About Karl Iagnemma

Karl Iagnemma - The Expeditions

Photo © Ann-Kristin Lund

Karl Iagnemma’s work has won the Paris Review Plimpton Prize and been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories. He is a research scientist in the mechanical engineering department at M.I.T. His collection, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, is available from Dial Press Trade Paperbacks.


“In these engaging “Expeditions,” Iagnemma brilliantly contrasts father and son, religion and science, exploration and exploitation. His energetic and thoughtful novel captures a culture, and a loving family, at a crucial moment of change."—Andrea Barrett, National Book Award-winning author of Ship Fever and Pulitzer Prize Fiction Finalist for Servants of the Map

“Iagnemma’s robust command of language creates an equilibrium between the [novel’s] two narratives, marrying the poetry of science with the promise of salvation.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Emotionally powerful and beautifully wrought…. One of this novel's many and considerable strengths is the way in which the author refuses to stack the decks for or against either of his protagonists or their prospective ideas—the man of faith and the man of science. Each has his flaws and each his admirable strengths.”—Los Angeles Times

“A mature novel that fulfills [Iagnemma’s] astounding promise.”—Miami Herald

“Exhilarating ... delivers from the first page.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“In these engaging Expeditions, Iagnemma brilliantly contrasts father and son, religion and science, exploration and exploitation. His energetic and thoughtful novel captures a culture, and a loving family, at a crucial moment of change.”—Andrea Barrett, National Book Award–winning author of Ship Fever and The Air We Breathe

“Flat-out wonderful...this book is a pleasure from cover to cover.”—Seattle Times
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

Author of the acclaimed short story collection On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, Karl Iagnemma’s (pronounced yon-YEM-ma) prize-winning fiction has captured the imaginations of readers coast to coast. In his debut novel, The Expeditions, Iagnemma takes us on a remarkable journey through the wilderness of nineteenth-century Michigan, where an estranged father and son trek toward a bittersweet reunion. Sixteen-year-old runaway Elisha Stone has joined a dubious expedition through rugged terrain, assisting a zealot who is determined to unlock an ancient secret about the Indians' origins. Hundreds of miles away, in small-town Massachusetts, Elisha’s father grapples with the death of his wife, unsure how to find their son and deliver the news of her passing. Determined to bring about a reconciliation before his own health fades, Reverend Stone sets out to see Elisha once more, immersing himself in a hardscrabble world of thieves and fortunetellers–and discovering a wellspring of wisdom and grace in the process. A masterwork by one of the literary world’s brightest rising stars, The Expeditions will enthrall you at every turn.

The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Karl Iagnemma’s The Expeditions. We hope they will enrich your experience of this mesmerizing novel.

Discussion Guides

1. What outlook on humanity is captured in the epigraph from Walt Whitman’s poem “With Antecedents”? How might the novel’s characters have responded to these lines?

2. Which historical details in the novel surprised you? What cultural aspects of Elisha’s world remain part of the contemporary American experience?

3. Discuss the varying quests presented by the novel’s expeditions. What essential motivations do the characters share in embarking on their journeys? Whose quest is filled most successfully?

4. In Chapter Two, Part One, Reverend Stone listens to a draft of a sermon read by Edson, the deacon, concerning geology and religion. What approaches to religion and science are captured in that scene? How do they compare to Professor Tiffin’s notions of Native American genesis, and to other images of religious fervor portrayed in the novel?

5. In Chapter One, Part Two, Elisha compares the expedition to his time collecting specimens with Alpheus Lenz. How comfortable is he with the role of apprentice? Does his relationship with his father have any bearing on the way he relates to other men in positions of authority?

6. What transformation takes place in Reverend Stone when Adele gives him messages from his wife, Ellen, at the end of Chapter Two, Part Two? How does her illness affect him? How does it affect Elisha?

7. How does the story of Adele and Jonah Crawley’s marriage shape Reverend Stone’s journey? Did his shifting perceptions of Jonah correspond to yours?

8. What does Susette teach Elisha about trust, attraction, and his capacity for saving someone he cares for? Why is he able to confront Ignace Morel while others hesitate to defend her?

9. Near the end of Chapter Four, Part Two, Reverend Stone drinks cider in a Detroit bar and contemplates whether is it possible to live without faith. Did that question have greater significance in the nineteenth century, when hardships such as Stone’s stolen money and severe illness posed an even greater threat than they would today?

10. Discuss the differences between Professor Tiffin and Mr. Brush. In what ways is Tiffin’s biracial marriage a barometer for compassion among his colleagues? How does Elisha’s perception of the world differ from Tiffin’s and Brush’s?

11. How might the arrival of Professor Tiffin and Elisha have unfolded if it had been described from the Chippewas’ point of view? What fundamental aspects of Chippewa culture were incomprehensible to those on the expedition?

12. In Chapter Two, Part Three, Reverend Stone recalls his distant, reticent father, who told him, “You know who you are when you know what you fear.” What fears are at the root of his anguish, and Elisha’s?

13. How would you have fared on a journey like Reverend Stone’s, decades before the communication age, traveling uncharted terrain? Has twenty-first-century ingenuity eased the timeless human struggles of mourning and family strife?

14. Elisha attempts to make sense of his decision to run away from his family, while Reverend Stone struggles with anguished guilt. What was the essence of their estrangement? Would they have ever reached a point of reconciliation if Ellen had survived? Why was she able to forgive her son more easily?

15. What themes of longing and identity run through both this novel and the stories collected in On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction?

  • The Expeditions by Karl Iagnemma
  • February 24, 2009
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Dial Press Trade Paperback
  • $15.00
  • 9780385335966

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