Apr/May 2005 Book Reviews

The Race to Save the Lord God Bird

Reviewed by Colleen Mondor

Phillip Hoose.
The Race to Save the Lord God Bird.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2004.
Ages 12 & up

I am a closet naturalist. When I'm honest with myself, I remember all those childhood dreams of becoming a marine biologist, of travelling all over the country (if not the world) looking for endangered and long overlooked species, of working as a curator in some amazing natural history museum. Those were the ideas I had in my head when I was young, what I wrote about in those diaries with the lock and key that everyone buys for little girls.

None of it happened.

I somehow ended up with a degree in aviation, with jobs in management, with a background that has become a composite of airplanes, teaching history, and working a lot of hourly jobs that have never amounted to a single, impressive career. I don't know how I got here, and I don't know what in the world happened to those dreams of saving the animal world. You blink and you are thirty-five, that's all I know. And I have blinked.

I really have not thought about any of this in a while. I have been busy with the business of growing up, and all the insanity that entails. But I turned my head in my local mega bookstore a month ago and saw an amazing book cover with both a great picture of a woodpecker and a fabulous title. I picked it upóbecause no one could resist picking this book upóand in the first couple of sentences I was hooked. Just like that.

The Race to Save the Lord God Bird is the true story of the people who over the past couple of centuries have studied and/or tried to save the ivory-billed woodpecker. Author Phillip Hoose crafts the story very well, keeping the chapters tight and focused on the many different individuals who have played a part in the saga of this bird. (It had many nicknames, one of which is the Lord God Bird, due to its impressive appearance.) He begins back in 1809 with naturalist Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology and author of a nine volume set on American birds. From Wilson the story continues through John James Audubon, whose painting of the bird is its most famous rendering, to a collection of hunters, collectors, businessmen, academics and fledgling ornithologists all of whom have something to contribute to the woodpecker's life or death. Along the way he also manages to discuss the founding of the National Audubon Society, the history of ornithology, and how and why the greatest old growth forests in the South were destroyed. Everything you could ever want in the most dramatic of books can be found in here, from classic heroes and villains to back country woodsmen, Hollywood soundmen, prisoners of war, slaves to fashion, and even an expert on spiders from Cuba. It all fits together in such an impressive and thrilling way that you forget you are reading a book about a bird and find yourself instead caught up in a dozen different adventure stories. That's what makes this such a great young adult book: it doesn't demand that the reader commit to a single overlying plot, it can be enjoyed one chapter at a time or devoured all in one sitting, and the history is so compelling and moves ahead so quickly that there is nothing the slightest bit dry or dull to be found here. It's about a race, a desperate, perhaps quixotic race, to save one of the more impressive creatures to ever walk the Earth. Hoose is such a great writer that he sucks the reader into the race from the very beginning and he never lets go.

This book is perfect for any kid, any kid at all, who has ever shown the slightest bit of interest in the natural world. It is beautifully written and illustrated, and there are plenty of side notes that invite all kinds of personal future study on any dozen of different topics. It's a great jumping off point for the young adult who doesn't know what to do or what to even look for in the world around him. There are also a ton of fascinating people described within Lord God Bird, many of whom started out as curious children. Hoose has carefully profiled them from a young age so that other ten, twelve, or fifteen year-olds can see how it is possible to set on a path from childhood that will have a lasting impact on the world at large. You can make a statement as a kid about what you want to do, and that statement shouldn't be laughed away. It could very well be that you know who you are from the very beginning, and this book will show lots of people who did and how they transformed their lives because of that knowledge.

As for me, well, I'm certainly no young adult, but I thought it was a great read. It is a book that any adult interested in the natural world would enjoy, and although I'm happy to see it in the young adult section, it belongs really in that weird grey area that includes all ages of endlessly curious readers. I'd like to think that Lord God Bird has put me back on a path that I never should have left, brought me home, so to speak. I'm not going back to college, I'm not going to be Sylvia Earle. But now I remember who I wanted to be, and I miss it all over again. Add another entry to the 2005 list of resolutions, because I'm going to do something about that.


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