Thursday, March 19, 2015

John James Audubon Imagined: Creation by Katherine Gouvier

John James Audubon (1785-1851) kept written records documenting his work and life yet his time exploring Labrador in 1833 is missing. Something in his letters and diaries made his granddaughter excise the pages. In her novel Creation, Katherine Govier invites the reader to imagine what occurred during these lost months.

My story is a mixture of fact and fiction.  “The gap”  in history is what interests me. That’s where the imagination can find root. I was very proud of those first two words — Just Suppose. Katherine Govier

As the book progresses the author continues to remind the reader that they are on an imagined journey.
"He did not write these words.
"Or at least we do not know that he did. He may have done, but we do not know. If he did, the letter is gone. Saved, perhaps for years by Maria. Collected on her death or before by Audubon's zealous, curious granddaughter. Lost in the Civil War, or burned, or soaked in a flood of tears, or vinegar. 
"This is what happens to letters, especially those with secrets in them.
"Time is a vessel. The past is the stories we fill it with."
Born Jean Jacques Rabin in what is now Haiti, he was the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner and his domestic servant Jeanne Rabine. After Jeanne's death he was raised by his father's mulatto mistress along with half-siblings. In 1788 he was sent to his father's legal wife in Nantes, France. He was formally adopted and became Jean-Jacques Foguere Audubon. In 1803 his family wanted him to escape service in the Napoleonic Wars and sent him to America where his family owned property outside of Philadelphia. In America he adopted the name John James Audubon. He had a life long fascination with birds.

After a stint in jail for bankruptcy he hoped to claim fame and financial security by creating the first comprehensive book on Birds of America, printed on 'elephant' sheets so the birds could be shown full size. He left his wife Lucy and their son Victor to handle the logistics while he and son John pursued the birds.

Audubon noted the decline of the birds, preyed upon by men who thought that nature provided an endless bounty. The Great Auk was extinct eleven years after he painted one.

When I was in Labrador, many of the fishermen assured me that the "Penguin," as they name this bird, breeds on a low rocky island to the south-east of Newfoundland, where they destroy great numbers of the young for bait; but as this intelligence came to me when the season was too far advanced, I had no opportunity of ascertaining its accuracy. In Newfoundland, however, I received similar information from several individuals. An old gunner residing on Chelsea Beach, near Boston, told me that he well remembered the time when the Penguins were plentiful about Nahant and some other islands in the bay.
The Esquimaux Curlew was last seen in 1964. On July 29,1833 Audubon witnessed a great flock that was driven inland by a dense fog. They were hunted, considered great delicacies.

Audubon's journey up the bleak coast of Labrador parallels that of British ship captain Henry Bayfield whose assignment is to chart the dangerous and unforgiving coast. The men become friends, their talk both philosophical and personal revealing they are opposites. Audubon has left a wife but also loves the woman who paints the flowers for his birds. Bayfield is a lone traveler with no family ties.

The novel does not have a suspenseful climax, a shattering 'ah-hah' moment, there is no strum and drang. And yet my interest did not flag. The writing is lovely. We learn history and about the production of the artwork. Audubon is complex, part trickster and part genius.

Audubon comes to understand that the act of creating his masterwork necessitates complicity in the destruction of the very birds he loves. But he can do no other. He was a willing slave to his work.

To see Audubon's birds go to
For an interview with the author go to

Creation was a New York Times Notable book of 2003.

Creation: A Novel by Katherine Gouvier
Published by The Overlook Press
ISBN-10: 0679311815
ISBN-13: 978-0679311812

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