Townsend's Warbler by Paul Fleischman

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Setting

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The birds divide their lives between Central America and the Pacific northwest of North America. Central America is full of insects; the birds feed on them by scraping their beaks along leaves and twigs. Their thrillingcalls serve to alert others of their species to their presence, ensuring that they spread themselves out away from each other, thus making sure each has enough territory to provide him or her with ample food. Come spring, they gorge themselves, building up their fat for the long journey northward.

Primarily in what are today Oregon and Washington, the birds mate and raise their young. The males display yellow hoods and sing songs that declare their territory and attract females. The female does most of the work of building a nest and of sitting on the eggs until they hatch, but both female and male provide the hatchlings with food. According to Fleischman, not much is known about the birds' habits. They spend most of their time high atop trees, making them hard to observe.

Wyeth's expedition begins its arduous journey from Independence, Missouri. There Townsend and Thomas Nuttall met up with Wyeth's group. The two would serve as naturalists on the expedition, although Townsend's being a physician had to be an added benefit. From Independence, the group rode to Independence Rock in Wyoming, then to the Columbia River. In the Great Plains they ate their fill of buffalo, although the traveling was hard enough that several members of Wyeth's group, including the cook, deserted. Eventually, the group climbed the Rocky Mountains, where they suffered from lack of food and water. Apparently Nuttall annoyed the other men with his persistent joy at discovering new plants, even while the group endured frustrating hardship.

The Columbia River was a wonderful sight, according to Townsend, who called it "the noblest-looking river I have seen since leaving our Delaware." Having suffered from great thirst in the dry northwest highlands, Wyeth's men must have been overjoyed :at the sight of a full, powerful river. From there Townsend and Nuttall sail to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) and study the unusual plants and animals there; then they return to the Far West. For them, the results of their journey through strange lands were joyous. They were delighted and excited over every new species they discovered; they were the first to scientifically describe many plants and animals.

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Books reviewers and other readers may be forgiven for having difficulty determining what the intended audience for Townsend's Warbler is. The publisher seems to think that the book is for older children and early young adults. Reviewer Roger Sutton thinks it is best suited to older readers. The book is short, suggesting suitability to early readers, yet its language and ideas are complex, suggesting an audience of mature readers. Older readers will probably miss the characterization that would have made Townsend and Nuttall more fully rounded, thus making their adventures all the more meaningful. Another five to ten pages about them could have made a big difference, enhancing the book for young adults. On the other hand, the book is about ideas more than it is about people. Its emphasis on the parallels between the journeys of men and birds suggests that human beings are still closely linked to the natural world.

Further, Fleischman's style serves to convey a great deal of information in few words. His prose is not terse; it is too graceful for that. Rather, his well-constructed sentences pull together images and ideas so that they work in harmony. For instance, he says, "The sky was filled with smoke, the sun hidden. Vast wild-fires raged around them, hundreds of square miles in extent, blackening the grass that should have fed the party's horses. The men as well ran low on food." In this brief passage, Fleischman conveys the party's isolation and the vastness of the territory in which they traveled. The fires add suspense and make the scene dreamlike, as if...

(The entire section is 1,460 words.)