BY EDWARD WEEKS
LIKE most boys growing up in a small town, I had my dogs and grieved when they were gone. One of the two who meant the most to me was Mr. Dooley, an immaculate bull terrier who accompanied me on my daily walk to Miss Jones’s school and came for me punctually at noon (his time clock made him paw the door if Mother was preoccupied), crossing the seven blocks which had less deathdealing traffic in 1906. Mr. Dooley died from swallowing a chicken bone; the vet gave up and drugged him to sleep, and I was inconsolable. Later when Father brought home a French bulldog, black coat with white chest, named Sport, I had my second ally: he slept on my bed, shared my penny candy and punishments, and came out in spots when I had chicken pox. From these two, more than from any elder, I first learned about death.
For centuries the animal was a brute of a lower order, which may explain why the animal story as literature, as a sympathetic portrayal of the animal itself, did not emerge until late in the nineteenth century. Whatever the cause, we are now more tender toward them, as we are certainly more closely observant of them, than were our ancestors. Were we prompted to write only when we had ceased to treat them as slaves? In early times animals were used as in Aesop’s Fables, to drive home moral principles, or as symbols of evil, like the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood” or the toad in fairy tales into whose ugliness the prince had been transformed as a punishment.
The ban was first broken with fantasy. Joel Chandler Harris’ Brer Rabbit is a sly, endearing scamp, dressed in fur and with an answer for any predicament. In The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s creatures appeal to me as literary types: Mole, the dubious hard worker; Water Rat, the flashy dilettante; Badger, an old pro, like Edmund Wilson; and Mr. Toad, the bumbling would-be patron. (The lovely thing about Wind is that you can shift it to any social milieu and it works.) For the purpose of identification, Rudyard Kipling has a real boy as his center attraction in the Jungle books, but Mowgli is surrounded by companions whose behavior and forbearance are of the human not the animal kingdom: Baloo is a nice sensible schoolmaster, Bagheera might be a retired admiral, the wolves are honest, sober citizens, Shere Khan, the tiger, is AI Capone, and (Kipling being gifted with prophecy) the Bandarlog are monkeys who have strolled right in off Madison Avenue. In Stuart Little by E. B. White, the most imaginative fantasy of our time, no one questions that Stuart is a member of the family nor that he has the frailty of a mouse, but in his feats of heroism, such as the yacht race in Central Park, he behaves like the tiniest of the Lilliputians, not like a rodent, and when he drives out of the story in his little car, he leaves a void young readers are slow to forget.
Black Beauty (1877), the only book ever written by Anna Sewell, an English cripple, is the work of one who knew and loved horses, and the humanitarianism in it has kept it alive as a classic in five languages. Black Beauty, a thoroughbred who comes down in the world, tells his own story, an anthropomorphic device we would not find acceptable today, but his fear when the stable burns and the punishment he takes as a dray horse are so real they touch the heart. Bob, Son Battle (1898), for all its rugged Scotch dialect, survived because Alfred Ollivant knew the hazards which the boldest sheep dog must run and the love which passed between a collie and his owner.
Animals live dangerously, always under the threat of death, and this was the truth told and retold by one of the best animal writers of our country, Ernest Thompson Scton: see how magnificently he describes the West in his story of the defiant wolf Lobo. On his return from Flanders, a young infantry officer, Henry Williamson, took refuge in a hermit’s hut deep in the Devon moors, where month after month he studied the badger, the deer, the otter, and the hawk; his best two books, The Old Stag and Tarka the Otter, are objective, authentic, and remorseless. This was the new trail. The deer in The Yearling, the raccoon in Rascal, the otters in Ring of Bright Water touch our heartstrings because they live and we dread their destruction. Even the homing instinct, that mysterious guidance of birds on migration or of dogs finding their way home across strange country, has been celebrated, by a Canadian, Sheila Burnford, in The Incredible Journey. It is natural that with all life in jeopardy and our wilderness shrinking we should care more about our animals.
THE ODDS AGAINST THE EAGLE
The best animal book of the year past and one which is unimpeachably American is THE GOLDEN EAGLE (Dutton, $3.95) by ROBERT MURPHY. Mr. Murphy is a redheaded ornithologist who picked up his lore on solitary expeditions as an amateur during the many years in which he wrote and edited for the Saturday Evening Post. His struggle, like that of any writer, was to free himself for fulltime devotion to his field, and one hopes that with the earnings of his earlier book, The Pond, which won the Dutton Animal Book Award for 1965, and with the many reprintings of The Golden Eagle, he is at last in the clear.
His protagonist is a female eagle whom for the sake of convenience he calls Kira, and the story spans her short life from the nest on the rocky cliff in Colorado, where she first learned to test her wings and to fear man, to that fateful snowstorm, when she stooped to feed from the old ewe which a rancher had killed and poisoned for coyote bait. The glory of the book is the glory of the high world which we mortals catch glimpses of from our plane window, but which Kira with her stronger sight could mark with infallible accuracy as she rode the wind currents. Much of Kira’s life when hunting or roosting is above the tree line, and the author’s description of the mountaintops, the high tundra, and the remote canyons in which the great bird takes refuge in the storms is magnificent.
Mr. Murphy is a first-rate ornithologist, and his accounts of how the lesser fowl behave in the presence of the overshadowing Kira — the angry challenge of the tiny hummingbird, the respectful glare of the hawk, the tumbling escape of the raven — are as amusing as they are true. In one fine passage Kira flows against the migration, loitering along the Sangre de Cristos, moving northward through the early autumn to the Arkansas River as the other birds are moving south. He tells us of her instinctive fear of men, reviving the old curiosity about animals’ memory; he depicts Kira’s torrid battle with a bobcat; and he gives us one episode, the incarceration in the miner’s cabin, which verges on the fortuitous. But for the most part, this is a sweeping and powerful narrative, splendidly graphic and admirably illustrated by John Schoenherr. It is also implacable, for as we know, the odds against the golden eagle are more deadly each year.
AFTER THE MARKET BROKE
In The Rector of Justin and now in his new novel, THE EMBEZZLER (Houghton Mifflin, $4.95), Louis AUCHINGLOSS discloses his story by having each of the three principals set down their version of what happened. The embezzler himself begins. Guy Prime, the handsomest of the younger generation of the New York Primes, had everything in his favor in his twenties, everything, that is, but money: he was a handsome athlete, sunny-tempered, and immensely attractive to women; his uncles had all married fortunes; the right doors were open to him; and when he married Angelica Hyde, there was every reason for him to rise to a crowning success in Wall Street and on Long Island. But Guy was born to spend, his own fortune and any others available. The Glenville Club, which he founded (and whose bonds he temporarily appropriated), was his monument, but the sunny conviviality which won him such popularity in the nineteen twenties had coarsened into a florid recklessness by the thirties, and when the market broke, no amount of borrowing could cover up Guy’s embezzlement. After serving his sentence, he took refuge in Panama, where he penned this record to clear his name. When the manuscript was shown to his intimates, it provoked a hot reply from his best friend, Rex Geer, who had undercut Guy in many ways, and a more compassionate statement from Angelica.
The literary artifice in all this seems to me questionable, but the story is such a good one and the three points of view so entertaining in their contrast that I can forgive it. Mr. Auchincloss is happiest when writing about the elect and the wealthy, and his scenes of the summer days in Bar Harbor, where Guy is trying to make peace with his father, a snob beyond belief, of Guy showing off in the bar of the Glenville, or of Angelica and her mother lighting their way through the cruise of the Aegean are delightful period pieces. The author never persuades me that his men are in love, which is a pity since Guy must have been quite good at it. Of the three narrators, Angelica is the most believable, more downright and with far less special pleading than either of her lovers.