Wednesday, June 17, 2015

This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon by Nancy Plain

I think the first biography that I ever read was John Audubon, Boy Naturalist by Miriam Evangeline Mason, a 1962 publication in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. I think I read it in a single evening. So I was thrilled when Bonnie brought home This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon by Nancy Plain, a 112 page illustrated biography for tween and teen readers. Ironically, I could not read it in a single evening because I can not stay awake long enough now.

If I could have started in the morning and ignored all my obligations, I would have had a wonderful time reading without stop about the Frenchman born in Haiti who became the most famous of American ornithologists and wildlife artists. His life is a quintessential American hero story. He came to Pennsylvania as a teen, fell in love with the country, and left a lasting legacy. That he struggled financially and at times was discouraged makes the story even better. I enjoyed This Strange Wilderness a little at a time over a couple of days.

Plain's book is more modern and honest than Mason's, which was written when our culture supported faultless accounts of our ancestors. Plain acknowledges what now seems unthinkable - Audubon shot many birds for the sake of studying and drawing them. In the early 19th century, future extinction of abundant wildlife seemed impossible. Audubon saw skies filled with passenger pigeons and the plains covered with bison. He witnessed the beginnings of the slaughter of these species and even warned others that it was unsustainable, but he did not alter his own habits. Readers may wish they had time machines to see what Audubon saw.

Naturally, This Strange Wilderness is filled with Audubon's own paintings of birds and mammals of North America. It is a good choice for aspiring naturalist as well as mature readers reviewing the world they think they know.

Plain, Nancy. This Strange Wilderness: The Life and Art of John James Audubon. University of Nebraska Press, 2015. 112p. ISBN 9780803248847.

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