By A.E. Hotchner
St. Louis: Virginia Publishing Co., 1997
ISBN # 1-891442-00-7
383 pagess

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2008

This novel is about the founding of St. Louis, Missouri. We follow the main character from his days as an irresponsible wealthy rake in the court of Louis XV at his court in Fontainebleau to New Orleans and finally up the Mississippi River to the wild and unsettled trading post which he founds in order to trade furs with the American Indians.

The story is interesting to read and each piece – the France of Louis XV, French colonial New Orleans and the early years of St Louis – provides useful insights in those historic periods.

However, I think it is a mediocre book at best, aggravating me at times. The primary problem is the treatment of the characters that inhabit the novel. They are all very shallow stereotypes. The good are so good as to be virtual saints. Those not saintly are the devil incarnate, stereotypes as well.

The frustration of reading such characters is not merely their exaggerated personalities, which actually elicited giggles in me at times, but that situations which were tense and should have created dramatic moments were spoiled by the obvious and unrealistic predictability as to what would happen. One is never too worried about the heroes when in dangerous situations, and one never even suspects that the bad folks might prevail. All such suspense is killed off in the early pages.

Many years ago I had read A.E. Hotchner’s semi-autobiographical novel, The King of the Hill. I loved it. I roared with laughter with it, even read passages aloud to family and friends. In that novel there were also many characters that were outrageous stereotypes. The neighborhood Irish cop immediately comes to mind. But that novel was a virtual slap-stick comedy and made no pretence to be very serious. In that work the stereotypes worked well. Hotchner seems to have a lot of himself involved in that novel, so that family members, at least, did come off as real people with many warts and virtues mixed together, yet still loved and accepted by the author. But in Louisiana Purchase the weakness of the characters was very damaging to my ability to enjoy the novel.

Nonetheless, there were was strong plot moves. It is an historical novel, and Hotchner does stick to some bare bones truths of St. Louis’s founding. He also used a more fictional tactic, a grudge between French settlers of St. Louis, and German settlers, beer makers even, with hints of the much later coming to St. Louis of the Busch family. That non-historical plot tactic seems to work fairly well.

Yet a different tactic seemed most puzzling to me, perhaps just laziness on the part of the author. For the key figures that represent the historical persons Pierre Laclede and August Choteau, he chose to use characters with other names. This allowed him to stay in some trivial sense within the historical frame (the years of the founding are correct, and the leadership of the fourteen year old Laclede is accurate), but little else in the characterization rings true of the history itself. This is contrasted with somewhat more accurate, if broad, characterizations of King Louis XV, Madame Pompadour, and Madame du Barry, whom he recognizes with their own names, as he does some of the New Orleans officials.

I guess I come away having enjoyed reading a novel which focuses on the founding and early days of my own home city, but disappointed at what seemed to simply be laziness on the part of the author.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu