Townsend's Warbler Characters
by Paul Fleischman

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Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

John Kirk Townsend was a physician and only twenty-four years old when he began his journey with Wyeth's men across the continent. He had been recommended by Thomas Nuttall, who had been impressed with Townsend's abilities as a naturalist. Townsend's specialty was birds; Nuttall's was plants; but each man would discover and describe animal and plant species. Nuttall was already a seasoned adventurer who had traveled extensively through the American wilderness. His unrelenting joy in his work as a naturalist had earned him the nickname "the fool" during an earlier expedition.

Neither Townsend nor Nuttall is fleshed out as a full character. Their personalities are scarcely touched on, and most of their likes and dislikes are left undescribed. Likewise, their family and social backgrounds are by and large left dark. Although Townsend is frequently quoted, the.quotations say little about him. What is emphasized about each is his dedication to research, which led each passionately to take care with every specimen and to overcome exhaustion and deprivation to gather important scientific information. The others in Wyeth's expedition, including Wyeth himself, are scarcely described at all. They seem to be a hardy lot; most of them lack Townsend's evident concern for the preservation of wildlife. They gun down animals for the pleasure of it. On the other hand, without them Townsend and Nuttall probably would not have survived a trip across America. By the time they reach the Pacific coast, they have been transformed from what they regard as civilized men to what they regard as more natural men. Their clothes have become animal skins, bathing has become a rare luxury, and they have learned to eat off the land.

The unifying theme of Townsend's Warbler is that of travel. The chapters contain parallel descriptions of the Wyeth's party's long journey and the migrations of what will be called Townsend's Warblers. The birds manage at least two full migrations during the party's trip. Fleischman emphasizes the hardships in both journeys. The birds must fly roughly the same distance the men must travel, about three thousand miles. They must overcome fatigue and hunger as they work their way along the Pacific coast. Each day, they stop to feed, then they rest until dark. At night they travel, using the stars for guidance. The men use trails and landmarks for guidance, for awhile following a long, shallow river. Like the birds, they must find food as they go, stopping and resting periodically. Fleischman describes both Townsend and Nuttall as so excited by their work that they overcome fatigue to take great pains to preserve their discoveries, even while the other men seem unable to move. Theirs is a journey of discovery, even though what they discover about themselves is left undescribed. On the other hand, Townsend's Warbler is instructive of how much a human being can endure when his journey has great meaning for him. For Townsend and Nuttall, the journey brought discoveries that energized their minds and spirits; that meaningful work can make even a difficult life...

(The entire section is 769 words.)