cover image O America

O America

William Least Heat-Moon. Univ. of Missouri, $29.95 (344p) ISBN 978-0-8262-2204-6

Heat-Moon (Blue Highways) offers a view of 1848 America via a British doctor’s journal in this introspective adventure narrative. After 34-year-old physician Nathaniel Trennant gives a lecture in London on fantastical beasts, an American sea captain in attendance offers him a berth on the Narwhale for a cross-Atlantic voyage. The philosophically minded doctor accepts, writing in his journal that he has a “slender notion of why I am outward bound, but I am quite lacking awareness of what I am bound for. That alone is reason to go forth.” Writing helps him manage the tedium and cruelties of nature he witnesses on the ship, such as a girl who is washed overboard. When the ship lands in Baltimore, Trennant is appalled by the slavery he witnesses in the city and befriends an escaped slave named Nicodemus. Slave catcher H.B. Ferrall swears to kill them both and pursues them as they proceed through Pennsylvania to New York by steamboat. Later, the men head west and part ways, though Ferrall continues to hunt them. Heat-Moon eloquently captures the Cambridge-educated Trennant’s voice as he marvels at America’s fundamental flaws and its extraordinary qualities. This unlikely reimagining of Huckleberry Finn as an English doctor is a surprising delight. (Feb.)