By Katherine Govier
Overlook, $24.95, 307 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY LLOYD SHAW
In her beautifully written little novel, “Creation,” Canadian author Katherine Govier recreates the summer during which soon-to-be-famous naval officer and cartographer Henry Wolsey Bayfield, of British origin, met soon-to-be-famous naturalist and painter John James Audubon, of Haitian and French origin. Both men came to America not by their own choice, but both found their goals and passions in the New World.
In the summer of 1833, Capt. (later Adm.) Bayfield, whose name is on many a map, commanded a ship charting the dangerous waters off the coast of Labrador, where hundreds of ships had been wrecked amid its myriad islands. Here he encountered a number of times Audubon (along with his youngest son), seeking to find and paint the last birds for his elephant folio “Birds of America,” already being produced in London.
Bayfield in his log proclaimed Audubon a “superior person,” the Audubon who had spent many arduous and debt-ridden years attempting to paint “from life” all the birds of Eastern North America. (To Audubon, “from life” meant birds he had personally observed and shot and hung up on wires to paint.)
As far as I can tell, Ms. Govier is the first writer on Audubon to have made the connection between the two, and she stumbled on it accidentally while working as writer-in-residence at the Toronto library. Bayfield is not mentioned by Audubon in his detailed journals, nor in any of the Audubon biographies I consulted, which is strange, for Audubon in his voluminous writings recorded the names of numerous individuals he met from obscure frontiersmen to Sir Walter Scott.
On this striking omission and the unusual sparseness of Audubon’s Labrador journals, Ms. Govier builds her novel. She speculates in the first chapter that one of two things may have occurred. First, Audubon’s granddaughter Maria, who acknowledged omitting for publication certain matters related to “family,” may have destroyed much more. Second, she further speculates, “something happened there, an adventure so grisly the artist had no words to describe it,” or Audubon may have written about it and “destroyed his words.”
Ms. Govier proposes to fill this gap in Audubon’s life. She acknowledges in her opening chapters that “discoveries may be made to shed light” on this summer. “In some attic, some cellar, the lost pages of the diary may be discovered.” Fiction, however, unlike history, she says, “is another story. We can be sure of it, for we make it up; it is complete and finished. We can embrace it, because it is what we know.”
It is commonplace to observe that Audubon, an expert marksman, shot, both for food and reasons of art, killed untold thousands of birds. Even in his many writings on the Passenger Pigeon, he never speculated on its eventual demise, though Americans fed their pigs with them and ate millions themselves, the hunters simply firing randomly into the enormous flocks.
Various writers on Audubon have observed that he seems to have changed in Labrador, perhaps because of the incredible slaughter of nesting birds he witnessed there, eggs being collected by the tens of thousands, sailors shooting into the flocks for sport. He also could not find there two birds he sought, the Great Auk and the Labrador Duck, soon, if not already, extinct.
Ms. Govier’s Audubon and Bayfield become friends and intimates, even though they have different purposes. Audubon confesses to Bayfield his origins, origins that he had repeatedly and inconsistently lied about to his family and the world. (Audubon was in fact not the child of his father’s first wife, as he claimed in his memoirs. He was the child of one of his father’s two mistresses in Haiti. Following the death of John’s mother and a slave insurrection, Audubon’s father brought him to France where he was reared by the childless and very understanding Mrs. Audubon, who Audubon says, over and over called him “the handsomest boy in all of France” — and, by all accounts, he may well have been.)
Bayfield will reluctantly reveal to Audubon the most horrible scenes he has witnessed as a British naval officer, the most wretched being a discovery he made off Labrador about a group of shipwrecked and stranded Irish immigrants. (I have no way of knowing whether the incident is imagined by Ms. Govier or based on Bayfield’s log.)
This discovery is part of what propels Bayfield, who, like Audubon and his son, has risked his life to fulfill his goal. Bayfield is determined to chart these dangerous waters so that they become safe for navigation, commerce, and human settlement.
And here his purposes clash with those of Audubon, who has a newly awakened fear of civilization. Bayfield, remembering the “Genesis” that gave Man dominion “over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air,” thinks extinction of a species “improbable.” Audubon has become convinced that Labrador’s vast colonies of nesting birds are threatened by the settlements and commerce Bayfield envisions.
Ultimately these debates, which Ms. Govier wisely makes little attempt to reconcile, are over the relative importance of humans and animals. Audubon, who frequently saw birds and animals as having human-like feelings and emotions, is of course much more sympathetic to the animals than Bayfield, although both men’s views affect the other’s.
Fiction using historical figures is a dangerous business, though, even if history is distorted, it can make good literature, as it has from the history plays of William Shakespeare to Sergei Eisenstein’s “Potemkin” and even the infamously inaccurate portrayal of District Attorney Jim Garrison in Oliver Stone’s “JFK.”
Ms. Govier, however, treads lightly here. She has clearly read carefully Audubon’s writings and builds his thoughts and personality on these. When she creates memories, as with his embarrassment over his origins, or his infatuation with his young South Carolina assistant Mary Martin, she is well within the realm of possibility — even probability.
She does have Audubon worry over his contribution to the financial failure of George Keats, but she wisely refrains from having Audubon recall whether he cheated Keats or not. (Both George Keats and his poet brother John Keats thought they had been swindled by Audubon; biographers agree that Audubon, soon to be in prison for debt, did not know the shipload of goods he sold George Keats was already at the bottom of the Ohio River.)
Having reviewed Audubon’s collected writings for this newspaper, I set out to disklike this novel, convinced it would distort the Audubon I thought I knew so well. It does not and I was wrong. Indeed, fiction though this book may largely be, it further clarifies John James Audubon, one of the more intriguing figures in American history and it tells a good story.
Lloyd Shaw is professor of English at Prince George’s Community College. He reviewed “Audubon: Writings and Drawings” for these pages in January 2000.