The hunter is heard before he is seen, whistling in a ‘‘determined, and somewhat aggressive’’ manner, in contrast to the birdsong that fills the air. He carries a gun and a heavy sack full of dead birds. He is an ornithologist proud of his collection of birds, ‘‘stuffed and preserved, dozens and dozens of them.’’ Still, he is friendly and kind, if somewhat smug about his wealth and sophistication, and Sylvia is both attracted to and somewhat afraid of him. He is so eager to collect a white heron that he offers Sylvia ten dollars (a sum that means little to him but a great deal to her) if she will lead him to the bird. As they walk through the woods together, the two seem to take equal pleasure in the birds they see—Sylvia for their living beauty, and the hunter for their rarity and usefulness to him as trophies. Not much is known about the young man, who, appropriately, is never named. It is not his individuality, but what he represents: masculinity, acquisitiveness, romantic love—that matters.
Nine-year-old Sylvia is a true child of nature. Her name, ‘‘Sylvia,’’ and her nickname, ‘‘Sylvy,’’ come from the Latin silva meaning ‘‘wood’’ or ‘‘forest.’’ She lives with her grandmother on an isolated farm in rural Maine, and she rarely sees other people. She remembers the early years of her life, when she lived in a noisy manufacturing town, as a frightening time, and she never wants to return. When a hunter comes looking for a white heron, she enjoys the company of another person for the first time and is puzzled by the conflicting emotions he stirs in her. He offers desperately needed money and also represents her first chance at friendship or romantic love. She alone can give him the bird he seeks. What she must decide is whether what he can give her is worth the betrayal of her relationship with nature. In the end, she does not reveal the heron’s nesting place.
Mrs. Tilley is Sylvia’s maternal grandmother. A year before the story opens, she traveled to the city to bring one of her daughter’s children back to help her on the farm. That child was Sylvia, who has grown to love the forest. Mrs. Tilley has lost four children, and her two remaining adult children live far away. She appreciates Sylvia’s help and company and lets her wander freely.
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