Phoebe Snetsinger (1931-1999) once rode a horse for ten hours over rocky terrain of mountainous Colombia in the rain to see a rare bird. She even skirted around war torn Zaire to sneak into Rwanda to add several birds to her life list. She also missed her mother's funeral, her daughter's wedding, and her husband's magic shows while birding overseas. That's how she became the first person to ever see 8000 of the world's approximately 9700 recognized bird species. In Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds, journalist Olivia Gentile tells how an admirable idea turned into a wedge between a woman and her family.
Snetsinger was not always so obsessed with birds. As a high school and college student she was very ambitious and wanted to become a research chemist. She did well in college but graduated just when hundreds of thousands of American men were returning from World War II. The message that women should step aside to let men have the jobs was spread high and low, even proclaimed in many popular magazines as the American thing to do. Many talented women found they lost the opportunities that they had gained during the Great Depression and the war. Snetsinger married and had four children in quick succession, but she never did embrace being homemaker. Her family ate many canned foods, and she assigned her children one night's cooking each per week as soon as they capable. With a little free time, she joined a group of birdwatching women and quickly found an outlet for her scientific passion. When she was diagnosed with cancer and only months to live, she took a fabulous birding vacation. She survived the cancer and never stopped traveling.
Snetsinger never wanted for money, being the daughter of Leo Burnett, a fabulously successful advertising executive in Chicago. When he and her mother died she inherited vast wealth that allowed her to travel to remote locations on every continent, spending eight or nine months abroad each year.
Much of Life List tells how Snetsinger risked life and limb birding while turning her ear to her family's pleas for her to come home. Using Snetsinger's letters to close friends and an autobiography that she was writing at the time of her death, Gentile deftly shows how Snetsinger justified her behavior, always hoping to reform and make amends. Readers who enjoys complicated characters should try this story.
Gentile, Olivia. Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds. Bloomsbury, 2009. ISBN 9781596911697