The Eskimo curlew, which once made its migration from Patagonia to the Arctic in flocks so dense that they darkened the sky, was brought to the verge of extinction by the wanton slaughter of game-hunters.
Following the doomed search of a solitary curlew for a female of its kind, Fred Bodsworth’s novel is a haunting indictment of man’s destruction of the natural world.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin found this slim 1955 novel on a shelf in the house of friends, and, struck with the "plain, succinct evocation and beauty" of Fred Bodsworth's writing, suggested its reissue to a publisher. This is a quick, elegant, devastating read. The Eskimo curlew was a species of shorebird that migrated (and perhaps, in extremely small numbers, still migrates) south from arctic Canada every fall, in a flight that took it eastward across Canada, and then, after feeding, south over the Atlantic to South America--this latter journey nearly 2,500 miles of nonstop flight. The curlew was almost unique among shorebirds for its ability to make this grueling passage.
Bodsworth, a respected ornithologist, makes us care about his fictional bird protagonist--a lone curlew in search of a mate--while still cautiously riding the line between description and anthropomorphism. Of his curlew preparing for a mate, he writes: "He waited within the borders of his territory, flying in tightening circles and calling excitedly as the other bird came nearer. The female was coming. The three empty summers that the male had waited vainly and alone on his breeding territory were a vague, tormenting memory, now almost lost in a brain so keenly keyed to instinctive responses that there was little capacity for conscious thought or memory."
The demise of this species at the hands of hunters and hungry consumers was so rapid and thorough that the "millions that darkened the sky" in Newfoundland in the 1870s during their annual migration were reduced to only a few lone fliers by the 1890s. An afterword by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann and line drawings by Abigail Rorer add context to this remarkable book. --Maria Dolan