Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Backlist Files - "The Race to Save the Lord God Bird"

One of the best heist films I’ve ever seen is not really a heist film at all. Nothing is stolen, though the rules are thoroughly broken. This particular film is called Man on Wire, a documentary directed by James Marsh which tells the story of tightrope walker Philippe Petit who in 1974 strung a wire between the World Trade Center Towers in New York City and spent the better part of an hour walking back and forth, evading police and capturing the attention of the world (This story was dramatized in the Caldecott winning picture book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein). What makes the film so successful is its appropriation of the heist film tropes (the plan, the execution, etc.) to tell a real life story.

I bring this up, because in reading Phillip Hoose’s masterful The Race to Save the Lord God Bird I was strongly reminded of mysteries and thrillers I’ve read where the ending is doubtful, but the clues continue to pile up. Hoose tells the story of the “Lord God” bird, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker like it were a detective story. We meet the usual suspects, good and bad, responsible for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s disappearance and reappearance through time. There are mysterious occurrences and unexplained rumors abound. What was once a plentiful population dwindles through hunting (which continued to happen even after the species was named endangered) and the destruction of their habitat. Finally, all that is left of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker are a few credible but unsubstantiated sightings.
Hoose’s writing is so neat and so clever, his prose reads like good fiction. This is a classic mystery, a natural whodunit. In addition to being a well told tale, the story of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is a perfect example of the need for preservation, a story of the people who fought for that preservation and how laws came into effect to achieve it. I was prompted to read this book in anticipation of Hoose’s newest ornithological tome, Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95. I can only hope that this new title lives up to the high standard set by its predecessor.

The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose
2004, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Library copy

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