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.)


Anonymous said…
Fred will be celebrating his 90th birthday this year and he is still writing in Toronto. I am one of his grandchildren and blessed to be! Thank you for this blog :)
richard said…
I'm delighted to hear Mr. Bodsworth is still writing, and therefore well! Do give him my best, and thank him for writing this book.

You're most welcome to enjoy this blog - I appreciate hearing of your pleasure.
Anonymous said…
Fred is one of favorite writers. If you enjoyed Last of the Curlews, please check out his other novels. The Strange One, The Atonement of Ashley Morden and The Sparrows Fall are even better. I wished he would of kept writing fiction.
P. Church said…
I first read this book about a year ago and I am still affected by it. It is beautifully, achingly well written and one of the few to ever bring a tear to my eye. It is hard to believe Mr. Bodsworth could do this in little over a hundred pages, but this slim volume is a work of fine art.
Ian, England said…
I have just accidentally re-discovered 'Last of the Curlews' after 42 years. Once again it moved me to eye watering, even though I remembered the ending. I just feel that it is more poignant now than when i first read it at school. Perhaps it was this book that moved me to become a conservationist.
Unknown said…
To the grandchild of Mr. Bodsworth,

I am a student researcher, assisting an English professor at the University of Ottawa. We are hoping to write a paper on Mr. Bodsworth and his influential and forward-thinking nature writing. We would love to contact him and/or his family to get some direct input. Please contact me at khenbest [at] gmail [dot] com if you could help us out! Thanks so much.

To Richard,

Thank you for this excellent blog post. :)
Marg said…
Earth day made me think of Fred, and Last of the Curlews. I was a family friend and stayed with Fred & Margaret in 1975 while studying in Toronto. Amazing folk who embraced me like loving parents, and taught me the wonders of birding. I hope that Fred is still alive and well, and writing. Yes, I just re-read this book and am recommending it be read by all.
Anonymous said…
Just read this book today and can't stop tearing up. I became a bird lover through my love of macaws but it has opened my eyes to all birds. They truly are one of natures greatest creations..

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