(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In such novels as Hearts of Flame (1991) and Truth Teller (2000), the Canadian writer Katherine Govier explored the complex interaction between real places and fictional characters. Creation differs from those works in that its two protagonists are historical figures. However, again Govier’s focus is the relationship between human beings and their environment.

The novel is a fictional re-creation of a voyage that the famous naturalist and artist John James Audubon made in the summer of 1833 along the coast of Labrador, where he encountered Captain Henry Bayfield of the British Royal Navy. Govier sees both men as obsessed with their missions: Audubon wants to document all the birds of North America, thus contributing to humanity’s knowledge of nature, while Bayfield intends to chart the coastline so meticulously that it will be safe to sail those treacherous waters.

When Bayfield loses one of his men to the sea, he can persuade himself that this is just another casualty in a naval action. However, in his conversations with Bayfield, Audubon reveals his inner conflicts. He believes he loves his wife Lucy, but he is making this trip with money she desperately needs; moreover, he continues to court a girl in Charleston, South Carolina, whom he also loves. He loves his wild birds, yet he has dozens of them killed so that he can paint one that looks alive.

Audubon likes to think of what he does as morally superior to the sailors’ indiscriminate slaughter of wildlife for their amusement. However, both he and Bayfield finally come to a sad conclusion: that by invading the wilderness they find so beautiful, they have helped to insure its destruction.