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Syms Covington was 15 years old when he joined the crew of H.M.S. Beagle for a journey that would change forever both his own life and humanity's view of our place in the world. As collector and "shooter" and all-around assistant, young Covington accompanied Darwin throughout the five-year voyage and for two years of wrap-up work after the return to England. Recent Darwin biographer Janet Browne describes Covington as the "unacknowledged shadow behind Darwin's every triumph."
Like most people who have lived on this planet, Syms Covington left little mark on history. But now his life has been impressively reclaimed from history's notorious dustbin, in a new book by acclaimed Australian novelist and essayist Roger McDonald, Mr. Darwin's Shooter.
McDonald's fictionalized account of Covington's life is far more than a footnote in the Darwiniana catalog. Granted, it is an impressively researched book, rich in the tangled issues that surround Darwin and his work, especially its shock to Victorian religious sensibilities. But Mr. Darwin's Shooter is genuinely about Syms Covington, not about Darwin. It is about his adventurous life, which happens to accompany for a time that of a man destined to become the most influential scientist of his era.
McDonald lovingly fills his story with the textures and assumptions of 19th-century life - religion, work, clothes, food, even shipboard floggings. The result is a superbly imagined story of a man who embodies the era - a daring, courageous, passionate man who is troubled by his own small role in the shocking changes going on about him.
When we first meet Syms Covington, he is 12 years old, the religion-drenched son of a butcher. We accompany him as he and Charles Darwin and the natural sciences grow up. We follow him into a contentious, disappointed middle age.
McDonald constantly surprises. His prose is ebullient, even boisterous, grabbing the reader with language so vivid and original, alternately comic and tragic, that it reads like something out of Dickens. McDonald never falls into a dry historical tone, simply because he refuses to lose the sweaty, angry, sad, violent reality of life.
Mr. Darwin's Shooter is not merely a historical novel. It is a serious novel that happens to take place in a time before our own.