“In a life so well-documented, these next few months form a rare gap. It is as if the dark cloud and fog Audubon sails into transcends mere weather, and becomes a state of mind. As if Labrador itself (or its weather) swallows the story.”

His need to capture the fugitive colours of birds pushed John James Audubon into impossible places, none more dangerous than the fog-ridden coast of Labrador in the summer of 1833. In mesmerizing prose, novelist Katherine Govier explores this fateful summer in the life of a man as untamed as his subjects.

Running two steps ahead of the bailiff, alternately praised and reviled by critics, John James Audubon set himself the audacious task of drawing, from nature, every bird in North America. The result was his masterpiece, The Birds of America, which he and his family published and sold to subscribers on both sides of the Atlantic. In June 1833, he enlisted his son and a party of young gentlemen to set sail for nesting grounds no ornithologist had ever seen, in the treacherous passage between Newfoundland and Labrador.

Fogbound at Little Natashquan, he encounters Captain Henry Wolsey Bayfield of the Royal Navy, whose mission is to chart the labyrinthine coast to make it safe for sea traffic. Bayfield is an exacting and duty-bound aristocrat; the charismatic Audubon spins tales to disguise his dubious parentage and lack of training. Bayfield is a confirmed bachelor; Audubon is a married man in love with his young assistant. But the captain becomes the artist’s foil and his measuring stick, his judge and, oddly, the recipient of his long-held secrets.

In this atmospheric and enthralling novel, Katherine Govier recreates the summer in which “the world’s greatest living bird artist” finally understood the paradox embedded in his art: that the act of creation was also an act of destruction.

Excerpt

Goodbye
to Land
Just suppose.


That it is a bright, cold May morning in the year 1833, and two men alight from the stagecoach in a little town on the Maine seacoast.

They are father and son, judging by their flowing chestnut locks and aquiline features, by their matching one-handed swoop off the high step. The older man slings his gun over the shoulder of his fringed jacket; he must be a frontiersman, a hunter. But he has a certain vibrancy, as if his whole body were a violin freshly strung, and his deep, gentle eyes take everything in. The son, of more solid flesh, has a fine-looking pointer at his heels.

They send their luggage on and climb to a vantage point on the granite rocks of Eastport. There is birdsong: the Cardinal’s whistle, the low warble of the Snow Bunting, the trill of the Pine Warbler. Side by side they look over Passamaquoddy Bay. Chunks of ice still float in the harbour among the muffin-shaped islands. They seem to listen to the air, to the wind; they scan the hills with eagle eyes, as if they might coax the spirits of the place out of hiding. At last, the father gestures below. They set off walking toward the harbour.

The schooner Ripley out of Baltimore is not there, but it will arrive any day, says the dray man they accost on the wharf. A certain gentleman has hired it for the season. He plans to sail west and north, around the tip of Nova Scotia, through the Cape of Canso and up into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and from there up the wild north shore of Labrador where only the fishing boats go. He is a famous gentleman. That is to say the dray man himself has not heard of him, but the newspapers write about him.

What do they say, these newspapers? asks the older man.

Ah, they say that he is a great American and that we ought to be proud. He is a painter of birds. He is making a giant book that will have in it every bird in our land.

But that gentleman is me! exclaims the newcomer, and the three slap their knees and laugh.

* * * * *

The travellers have come a month ahead of time. There is so much to do. The schooner, when it arrives, must be fitted with a wooden floor in the hold and a table nailed down for the artist to do his work. They find the captain.

Emery -- spry, greying, moustached -- invites them into his clapboard house at the edge of town. From the parlour he can look over the harbour. With the brass spyglass that sits on the mantle, he scans the port. He has been on the seas most of his life and was once captured by Spanish pirates off Puerto Rico. He eats tobacco as another man might eat a handful of nuts. He will hire the crew. There is a pilot from Newfoundland he knows, and a local boy, Coolidge, good on the water.

In the market, father and son and the three young gentlemen who have joined them from Boston buy oilskin jackets and trousers and white woollen toques with an oilskin awning that hangs down the back to keep the rain from sliding down their necks. They cavort in their outfits and flirt with the ladies who sell knitted goods. By the time a week has passed, they have charmed nearly everyone in town.

The gentlemen roar with laughter over their dinners in the public house. The artist has forsworn grog and snuff, but it does nothing to diminish his fun. He pulls out his flute and plays an air; his son plays fiddle, and the young gentlemen all sing and pull the barmaids from behind the counter to waltz around the room. Sometimes the artist takes out a piece of paper from his waistcoat and scribbles figures: victualled for five months, $350 each month. He checks his multiplication. He writes, potatoes, rice, beans, beef, pork, butter, cheese. Other times he falls silent and gazes, abstracted, at a wall. He goes to the harbour, under the moonlight, and looks to see if the ice is all gone.

His name – the name the world knows, two centuries later -- is John James Audubon. He is here, with his great hopes and his desires and his premonitions of doom, preparing for his mid-life voyage. He is halfway through his masterpiece: a catalogue of every bird in North America, represented the same size as in life, and observed by him in nature. It has taken seven years thus far, and will take him six more to finish. He has done this without patrons, selling subscriptions to the book himself, collecting the dues, finding birds in the wild and sending his paintings across the sea to London to be engraved and printed, and then hand-painted.

The great man is as generous with his words as he is with his colours. He tells his stories in many places and in many different ways. He will leave, aside from his great book of pictures and the volumes of words that accompany it, his journals, and many letters.

In fact, in a life so well documented, these next few months form a rare gap. It is as if the dark cloud and fog he sails into transcends mere weather and becomes a state of mind. As if Labrador itself (or its weather) swallows the story. Strange.

Is it because he goes north and off the map?

Because he leaves the sacred ground of his own country and journeys to the least known part of the little-known continent?

Or is it because something happened there, an adventure so grisly the artist had no words to describe it? That he wrote about it and afterwards had second thoughts and destroyed his words?

Or -- here we get to the nub of it -- is there another reason, a reason to do with his human attachments? Those he loves and especially those who love him. With desire, possession, betrayal, the women and the children he leaves on shore? A reason rising out of old passions or new intimations? Has what happened on this voyage been ripped from the record because someone did not want history to know?

We do know, sitting as we do in their future, that the great man’s son, young Johnny, the one so quick to learn the masts and ropes from the Yankee sailors, will have a wife a few years hence and that this wife will have a child. And that eventually, when the artist and his wife, and all their children are dead, this granddaughter, Maria, will come into possession of his letters and diaries. She will appoint herself keeper of secrets and protector of reputations. And what she reads about her famous grandfather’s life, and particularly this summer of 1833, will displease her. She will excise huge portions of the journals. She will publish the bowdlerized version and destroy the original. Letters will be lost, burned, turned into dust.


From the Hardcover edition.
Publisher: Vintage Canada