Thursday, April 26, 2012

Audubon, by Constance Rourke

Dear Audubon,

I wanted to like you. I looked forward to reading you, and even called "dibs" on you as Melanie and I went over the list for 1937. You'll agree, then, that I turned to your pages with a willing, open mind.

And you led me on. You began with a mysterious and intriguing beginning that I had never suspected - I had no idea that the fate of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI's young son Louis Charles was something of a mystery and that James Audubon was one of legend's top candidates, his age and hazy beginnings fascinatingly perfect for the lost Dauphin. I was a little disappointed to read that the heart rumored to be that of the Dauphin was tested for DNA and found to be a match for a close relative of Marie Antoinette. But there's no proof, and a good story is a good story, so I'll hang onto this one.

From the time James Audubon becomes obsessed with birds, though, I quite frankly had trouble staying awake. A picture is worth a thousand words, and James Audubon's career was all about pictures, and none of them were in this book. There were some line drawings, but they were largely forgettable and especially disappointing amid the descriptions of his fantastic colored works.

His adventures in the American frontier were fascinating, actually, but only when I thought about them after plodding through your matter-of-fact descriptions of his travel, who he met where, and what he found to paint. I was sorry to read about his financial woes, but never felt very invested in his character and thus didn't care nearly as much as I might have. I did like learning that he was a devout Quaker, and spoke Quaker English (complete with thees and thous) with a strong French accent throughout his life. I was unsurprised but still a little sorry to learn that he shot nearly all the birds he drew, and thus his gorgeous pictures are almost never from life. And in that context I am glad to know how hard he worked to get every detail exactly right, in contrast to some of his contemporaries.

So yes, you did teach me some things that I'm glad to know, and for that I thank you. I'll almost certainly do more reading about Audubon's life, but I'll take it elsewhere from now on. I'd say let's be friends, but really... you were on interlibrary loan, and I don't know that we'll meet up again.


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