One thing that working in a used book store will teach you is that literary fame is strange and fickle. A decade’s, region’s, or genre’s superstar can become invisible just by traveling on in time, space, or to the next floor in Barnes and Noble. For instance – you’ve probably heard of Wallace Stegner and Tim O’Brien, but when’s the last time you picked up a novel by Mary Lee Settle? Yet she won the National Book Award for fiction in 1978, the year of my birth – right between Stegner’s 1977 win for The Spectator Bird and O’Brien’s 1979 win for Going After Cacciato.
But this isn’t about Mary Lee Settle, so godspeed, good lady. This is about Allan W. Eckert. Eckert, a native of Buffalo but an Ohioan by inclination, has had a career that includes an Emmy (for work on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom) and a nomination for the Newberry (for Incident at Hawk’s Hill), as well as controversy for playing fast and loose in nonfiction and an apparent inclination to bring up Pulitzer nominations that mean the same thing as Nobel Peace Prize nominations (e.g. nothing: anyone can be nominated, only finalists get props.) Outside the circle of people interested in the history, natural and otherwise, of the American midwest, hardly anyone knows about this action-packed resume.
I was not part of that hardly anyone – aside from a cover-deep familiarity with A Sorrow in Our Heart, his biography of Tecumseh – until I received The Silent Sky.
This is a book that plays to Eckert’s strengths. A novel based on the life of the last wild passenger pigeon, it allows scope for his imagination while letting him describe the flora, fauna, landscapes, and people of the midwest at length, something he does aptly and with heart.
As you may already know, I’m sensitive to anthropomorphism in this type of work, not because I believe animals are machines with no subjective experience, but because I feel certain that their subjective experience is in many cases as alien as a Martian’s, and as poorly represented in art as a man in a green rubber suit. I’m happy to report that, except for a few weirdly old-fashioned gender assumptions (perhaps understandable in light of the book’s original publication date in 1965), Eckert appears more interested in cramming as many facts as possible about the birds into his story than in making them human. Moreover, he attempts to capture – as nearly as human words can capture – the restless bewilderment that results when an animal finds itself completely out of its accepted element – alone when driven by instinct to flock, in a cage when driven by instinct to migrate.
Of course the end is foreordained, so suspense is not really a factor. There’s an old-fashioned vibe to this book, but one not inappropriate to the subject and setting.
The real strength of the work is in the way that it conveys on the story level how very essential sheer quantity was to the Passenger Pigeons’ whole way of life. Though some scholars now argue that the billions-strong flocks that Audubon reported were anomalies, there seems to be no doubt that even on a smaller scale the pigeons’ chief tactics were surprise – surprise and numbers. They showed up where food was plentiful, produced young so numerous that the local predators couldn’t hope to cut them all down, and next year, when those same predators had reproduced into more hazardous numbers, were somewhere far away. It was an excellent strategy – but not one that could hope to overwhelm the human mobility, rapid communication, and capitalist rapacity that came into play in the U.S. in the 19th century. Eckert recounts how death stalks the pigeons at every turn in a matter-of-fact way that eschews melodrama – and then contrasts that “natural” level of mortality with the mass destruction resulting from pigeon hunts.
The Silent Sky is lovely in a quiet way, distant but haunting – and in the last analysis, a rather emotionally draining experience. Which is my only excuse as to why I haven’t purchased Eckert’s book on the Great Auk.