"Birds with No Feet" in Andrea Barrett's story collection, Ship Fever, is quite eye catching, don't you think? Wherever would a story go with a title like that? It's always intriguing seeing where an author takes a reader, and with short stories it is always a little bit disorienting at first trying to figure things out. Her stories move around in time and switch from male to female narrators. I like that women are often scientists and not all of them are contemporary narrators either.
This story takes the reader back to 1853 and it ends in 1862 as America prepares for and begins a new war. But it is not the war Barrett is concerned with. She is really quite subtle with her storytelling, which is something I very much appreciate. She tells a good story, but they are always stories that the reader is left to ruminate over when all is said and done. Sometimes it is not so obvious at first what she intends the reader to take away with her, which I also like.
In the case of Alec Carrière this story is one of discovery and self-discovery.
"Until he's sailed for the Amazon, he'd worked in a shop making leather valises, not far from the tavern his parents ran in Germantown. But like the young English collector he'd met in Barra, near the flooded islands of the Rio Negro, he's been saved from a squalid and unremarkable life by a few kind men and a book. With his uncle's ornithology text in his pocket he'd wandered the banks of the Wissahickon, teaching himself the names of birds and imagining wild places."
Like other naturalists he is largely self-taught save for the advice he receives from other members of the Academy of Natural Sciences. Pressed by his father to give up his childish hobby and take on a proper job, a fellow scientist gives him a book that will set him on the scientific path for good, A Voyage Up the Amazon. What is there to keep him in Philadelphia when the world beckons, a world waiting to be explored and studied and categorized and named. He has an earnest desire to go off to the tropics as well and an auctioneer assures him that he can pay for his voyage by gathering "birds, small mammals, land-shells, and all the orders of insects." Wealthy collectors back home will pay handsomely for his finds. So, find he does. His father angers at his decision and his mother weeps, but he sees only miracles.
He works hard, despite sickness and hardship, heat, bad food and everything else that accompanies such a journey in the 1850s. But he sets off back home after a year of hard work with cache of specimens that will easily pay off his debts and all him to study properly. This won't be the first time in his career that he will meet up with a reversal of fortunes. It is something like a rags to riches to rags once again experience that will plague him on his journeys.
Alec is tenacious however in his work and study. It is remarkable what he finds. Such a variety of life. How does one species continue to change and develop into something similar yet new? A question of the times. "Where had all these creatures come from?" Sometimes he gets a little too close to his subjects, but as a scientist it is his job to study--even if it means cutting and separating and opening and looking. To do this is to serve science. "Was this science?" he asks himself.
The birds with no feet? As a boy in Philadelphia he spent hours at the museum looking at a skin of a bird, which was stunning--yellow and red with a tail of glossy blue. But he stared not only for the vibrancy of color, but because it had no wings or feet. How could there be such a thing?
"They were elusive, irresistible; and their skins were so rare as to be very valuable. Money crossed his mind, as it always had. Nearly penniless, and still without a wife or any possibility of supporting one, he seized on the prospect that the paradise birds might save him."
Always on the periphery of his thoughts is this thing--money. Is this science? Collecting, cutting, stuffing, bringing back whatever he finds. The common but especially the elusive. All in the service of science. One of the native boys where he had been hunting tells him he knows so much--even about their birds and animals. More they they do perhaps. Alec has no fear, bu but the boy tells him, "we believe that all the animals you kill and keep will come back to life again." Something Alec denies strenuously. Truly they are dead. And the boy replies--"they will rise". "When the forest is empty and needs new animals."
And there is the twist.
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Next story is "The Marburg Sisters". I will keep reading a story a week, but I have only one short story and a novella left. So, as next weekend we will be well and into September and that means RIP season, the question is--do I start looking for and reading ghost stories now? Should I look for new ones or revisit some old ones. I have an urge to look for some by Daphne du Maurier, though I have read all her major stories and lots of the less known as well.
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Just a quick note about Alice McDermott's short story "These Short, Dark Days" which appeared in last week's (August 24) New Yorker--it is well worth a read if you've got a bit of time to spend with it. Her Q&A was immensely helpful in shedding light on some of the details, by the way, as this is another story where there is more to think about that what you are first presented with. In a nutshell and without any details an idealistic Catholic nun in turn-of-the-century New York must deal with a man who has committed suicide, leaving behind a pregnant wife--and her desire to have him buried properly. She mentions the inspiration for the story comes partly from having been immersed in newspapers from that era, so I wonder if that means she is researching for a new book? I've fallen just a little behind in my New Yorkers, to the next story up is by Jensen Beach whose work I am not familiar with so I am looking forward to reading his story.