In her introduction, Swift declares as her goal to capture in the narrative of From the Eagle’s Wing “even a fraction of the passionate zest for life, the love of beauty, or the dedication to his own sense of mission which characterized John Muir.” Success in that goal will, she infers, best motivate her readers to care for the wilderness, for what she calls in her dedication “our most priceless American possession.” It is for that reason that Swift has dramatized the narrative in her attempt to go beyond the totally objective relaying of facts, statistics, and events. In the storytelling tradition, her efforts are focused on establishing between the subject, Muir, and the young reader an intimacy that creates empathy and involvement on the part of that reader.
The book is intended chiefly for a juvenile readership, and its primary value for young readers lies in the conservationist ideals it espouses. The book’s continued topicality seems assured in the light of increasing concerns in the United States over environmental issues. Swift repeatedly reminds the reader that the consequences of the actions of one generation drastically affect the next. It is her stated wish that this idea be conveyed successfully to the young reader.
Swift’s admiration for Muir is quite evident, and occasionally her partiality to Muir shades her perception of the principals and of certain events. Thus, the book’s objectivity, and a certain sense of accuracy, is slightly diffused when the lively, animated writing style persistently emphasizes only the positive aspects of people and events. For example, the rift between Muir and his father was a serious one;...
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Swift, a well-known outdoor enthusiast herself, was motivated to write about others who cared about nature. Her book The Edge of April (1957), about another conservationist and contemporary of Muir, John Burroughs, is dedicated to the same ideals. Both the biography of Burroughs and From the Eagle’s Wing were included on the notable children’s books list of the American Library Association in the years that they were published. These books firmly established Swift’s credibility as a children’s writer concerned with ecological responsibility.
In 1962, the cry for environmental protections in the United States was somewhat limited to groups such as the Sierra Club (which Muir founded) and a minority of farsighted individuals troubled by the long-range effects of ecological destruction. In the decades that followed, environmental issues assumed an increasingly prominent place in political forums and even international concerns.
Swift emphasizes in her work that environmental issues are as much, if not more, a concern for children as for adults; each generation is faced with the legacy passed to them by the preceding one. As scientists learn more about the importance of the nonhuman world to humans, and as long as the disappearance of forests worldwide continues, a book about one of the earliest environmentalists in the United States can only find an expanded significance in young adult literature.