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Audubon's mysterious summer
The great bird artist John James Audubon was obsessed with the idea of drawing the living essence of his elusive subjects. The same thing could be said for author Katherine Govier. In her second novel, Creation, Audubon himself is Govier's quarry. He turns out to be as difficult to pin down as an arctic tern or a red-throated loon.
Govier takes the reader directly into the most uncertain passage of Audubon's biographythe foggiest period of his long years of tracking down birds. In the summer of 1833, midway through his work on the monumental Birds of America, Audubon hired a ship to explore bird life on the Labrador coast. The artist's journal for those months is unaccountably sketchy, with events seemingly withheld for a deliberate reason. Govier seizes the challenge of filling in this biographical gap, which stands out oddly in a life that is otherwise so richly documented.
In researching the maritime archives, Govier discovered that Audubon's excursion to the Gulf of St. Lawrence coincided exactly with the hydrographical voyage of the Royal Navy ship Gulnare, whose Captain Bayfield was second in renown only to Captain Cook as a surveyor of treacherous coastlines.
Audubon matter-of-factly recorded in his journal, without further comment, that his ship encountered Bayfield's. Might the two men have become friends? How would they have understood each other's missions to that fogbound, dangerous place? Questions like these are a novelist's (and thus a reader's) dream come true.
For bird lovers, it is vexing to know that Audubon killed huge quantities of birds during his long careermany more than he actually needed to create his art. Indeed, Audubon thoroughly enjoyed shooting birds. There was something innately cruel in his nature, a trait that unfortunately extended to his relations with human beings, particularly the women he purported to love. Govier dives deep into these dark waters of Audubon's character. On every page of Creation, the bird man, long dead, comes to life again, in all the colorful plumage of an immortal artist.