Sometimes a book will sit on my shelf for years, passed over — or even forgotten — until that moment when my need for insight connects with a bang-on story. Some books “wait” for me longer than others. As a kid in New York, I remember dipping my toe into the pond of adult reading where I came across a puzzling book title: Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth, included in my mother’s volume of Readers’ Digest Condensed Books (although why a novella needed condensing, I have no idea). I assumed the book was non-fiction, I didn’t know what a curlew was, and when I found out it was a bird, I lost interest.
It was only last fall that Last of the Curlews came my way again, noted in the obit of its author Fred Bodsworth, a renowned Canadian naturalist who lived in Toronto (as I do) and died in September 2012, just a month short of his 94th birthday. By now I was alert to the natural world (and married to a birdwatcher), so my interest was piqued by the title of this classic work. Yet as a writer and lover of the novella form, I felt certain that a story told from the point of view of a bird was going to be either stunning or godawful.
Bodsworth tells the tale of an Eskimo Curlew (now believed extinct) seeking a mate in its Tundra nesting grounds, migrating southward in the fall and northward again in its quest for a partner. Juxtaposed with the narrative is a series of bulletins from the Royal Society of London, describing the gradual extermination of the species from over-hunting. This prescient work was published in 1954, and its author never made the mistake of either pounding the pulpit or turning birds into little people with feathers. He’s the observer, telling the story as if he were flying alongside the curlew, always reminding us that birds wait “for the prompting of instinct to tell them what to do next.”
Yet in its singleminded point of view, the novella manages a feat of empathy worthy of the best practitioners of the form. Bodsworth knew that all creatures, human or animal, carry within them yearnings for intimacy and for companionship. It’s the instinctive power of our own sexual and social drives that keeps us reading about the struggle of the lone curlew as it seeks both a mate and a flock of migratory companions.
Because of its subject-matter, Curlews contains vivid descriptions of events not often found in literary work. Consider the harrowing experience of bird migration or the delicate love-play of avian species. To its credit, the writing is unsentimental, eloquent and direct. However tragic its conclusion may appear to us, we see that from the curlew’s point of view, there’s no grief, no sense of loss. Life goes on, tugged along by the pull of instinct, and the bird doesn’t know it’s the last of its kind. In this contrary clash of emotions, the book ends. We know what the bird cannot, and its innocence confronts us with the harm we have done to our world.
Last of the Curlews is a sad, eloquent, and beautiful novella. It is also a work of great artistry, one I’m grateful to have read at last.
Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth (illustrated by T.M. Shortt with an afterword by Graeme Gibson) is published by McClelland and Stewart in Toronto, New Canadian Library, 2010 (Other editions are available).