Fred Bodsworth, Last of the Curlews
It regularly happens that a pretense at knowledge or expertise is brutally exposed. This is generally something that pleases me, even when it's my own pretense, and that's certainly the case this time. I'd heard dimly of Fred Bodsworth, but not about his short novel Last of the Curlews, and that's a shame. It's worth reading, especially but not exclusively by people with environmentalist leanings.
In the middle years of the 19th century, there were countless millions of Eskimo curlews, so many that it's estimated that two million birds were killed every year. Among the most accomplished fliers, they migrated annually from Alaska across the Arctic tundra to Labrador, from there to Argentina (flying straight across the Atlantic, unable to stop since they weren't seabirds), and finally working south to Patagonia. They would then fly north over the Andes and through the Great Plains, covering a few hundred miles in a day, several thousand miles twice every year. As far as Bodsworth knew, the last pair of Eskimo curlews were seen in 1945.*
It's difficult for me to be objective about a story like this one, given the content and my politics, but I do think the writing itself is worth paying attention to. The story is told in alternating chapters, between faked articles summarized from a journal called The Gantlet on the one hand, and on the other third-person omniscient narration that manages to get believably into the bird's brain with very little anthropomorphism. The journal gives all the necessary context, while the chapters drive the narrative forward. And the narrative does drive forward, even though the conclusion is obvious, given (a) the title of the book and (b) the history of the species.
The effort at avoiding anthropomorphism is notable, and so is the generation of legitimate tension in the chronicle of a death foretold -- of an extinction foretold. Last of the Curlews is only 107 pages long in my old-school New Canadian Library edition (that misspells the author's name on the back cover, charmingly), so there was little chance my interest would fade, but it was tough to keep putting this down. I did keep putting it down, because of the marking that keeps piling up, but I kept picking it up whenever I could.
I hope you'll pick it up as well.
* Bodsworth's book was published in 1954, at which time the species was believed to be extinct. A pair was subsequently photographed in 1962 at Galveston, Texas, a specimen was collected (shot! actually shot!) in 1963, and there have been a few unconfirmed sightings since then. Still, there hasn't been a confirmed sighting in 44 years, and there were enough of them a century ago that two million of them could be killed in a season. Close enough for me, even without the chilling remark on the Texas Birds Records Committee website documenting the 1962 Galveston photos: "These images may represent the entire photographic record of this species in the wild." (And even those photos are occasionally questioned.)