Book: Audubon

Author: Constance Rourke

Illustrator: James MacDonald

Publisher: Harcourt Brace, 1936

ISBN-13: 978-1199324894

ISBN-10: 1199324892

Language level: 3

(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)

Recommended reading level: Ages 16 and up

Rating: **** 4 stars

(5 stars=EXCELLENT; 4 stars=GOOD; 3 stars=FAIR; 2 stars=POOR; 1 star=VERY POOR; no stars=NOT RECOMMENDED)

Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker

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Rourke, Constance.  Audubon (published in 1936 by Harcourt Brace and Company Inc., New York City, NY). John James Audubon was an American ornithologist, naturalist, and painter. Audubon was born in Les Cayes in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on his father’s sugarcane plantation. He was the son of Lieutenant Jean Audubon, a French naval officer (and privateer) from the south of Brittany.  Jean returned to France, where he became a member of the Republican Guard. In 1791 he arranged for his natural children, Jean and Muguet, to be transported and delivered to him in France. In 1803, young Audubon’s father obtained a false passport so that he could go to the United States and avoid conscription in the Napoleonic Wars and sent him to Audubon’s lead mining property of Mill Grove, PA, on the Perkiomen Creek a few miles from Valley Forge. At Mill Grove, Audubon met the owner of the nearby estate Fatland Ford, William Bakewell, and his daughter Lucy. He was married to Lucy five years later. The two young people shared many common interests, and early on began to spend time together, exploring the natural world around them. In 1808, Audubon moved to Kentucky, which was rapidly being settled. Though their finances were tenuous, the Audubons started a family. They had two sons, Victor Gifford (1809–1860) and John Woodhouse Audubon (1812–1862), and two daughters who died while still young.

Audubon set about to study American birds, determined to illustrate his findings in a more realistic manner than most artists did then.  Over the years, he lived in and travelled to many different places throughout the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and France.  He was noted for his extensive studies documenting all types of American birds and for his detailed illustrations that depicted the birds in their natural habitats. His major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed. His works not only contain his beautiful paintings of birds in their natural setting, but chronicle his studies of bird behavior.   Audubon identified 25 new species and was the first to band bird’s legs to study migratory patterns. This book by Constance Rourke, with twelve colored plates from original Audubon prints, is an extensive and detailed biography of the man. Even though it seems that the book was not written specifically for young readers, it was a 1937 runner-up to the Newbery Medal winner (i.e., a Newbery Honor Book).

The book does contain references to dancing at a ball, the use of snuff, and drinking ale.  Also the “d” word appears once in a quotation.  One critic said that it was “a poor biography, opinionated and poorly researched as well as full of misinformation,” but did not specify what the misinformation was.  Perhaps it refers to Rourke’s mention of the once common speculation that Audubon might have actually been “the Dauphin” or small son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who was allegedly spirited away.  That supposition is now generally rejected, but at one time it was a frequently suggested legend.  As to the charge of “poorly researched,” the author includes a seventeen page “Note” listing all the sources from which she drew.  There is also an index.   It is true that the lengthy, matter-of-fact descriptions of Audubon’s travel, work, and acquaintances might be a little tedious for a slow or reluctant reader.  However, those who like birds, are interested in naturalists, or just enjoy a good biography will appreciate Audubon.

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