Mary Durant and her husband, Michael Harwood, have done what many of us dream of doing. Their children grown, the Harwoods bought a tent and sleeping bags, packed their cart and drove off in search of one of America's cultural heroes. The trip lasted several years and took them across thousands of miles of North America from Louisiana to North Dakota, from Florida to Labrador, for their hero is John James Audubon.
The Harwoods are "serious birding people" who know a golden-crowned thrush when they see one. They spent years preparing for the trip, reading and comparing many biographies, studying Audubon's journals and reding ll the family letters that were available. They pieced together a map of his travels year by year, from Mill Grove in Pennsylvania to his last collecting trip on the Dakota frontier.
The book is organized as a travel journal. Visiting Henderson, Ky., where young Audubon kept (and often neglected) a general store, the authors look up the gret-great-great grandson of Audobon's business partner. Joe Rozier is still minding the store, and shares some of the stories about Audubon handed down through his family. We have separate reflections on Audubon's life in the town from Durant and from Harwood, and they have interspersed some of Audobon's journal entries with their own.
The journal format does not mean hurried or careless writing, however. The authors have pruned and polished their entries to complement each other. Their selections from Audobon's prose give the book a sense of history that might not have been achieved any other way.
Mr. Harwood offers a good-natured, mildly philosophical view of the way America treats her heroes and how America invents her own image over time. He writes well, but not quite as well as his wife.
Mary Durant's prose often grasps immediately what is most important in a given scene, the way Audubon's best drawings grasp a vital scene in the bird's life cycle and transfer it to the eye in a dramatic way. Her observations on the character of Lucy Audubon, and Lucy's constantly adjusting devotion to her genius husband over nearly four decades, add other soundings and speculations that make the artist all the more fasinating.
The authors imposed one large restriction on their pilgrimage by not following the trail to England, yet this seems for the best. Audubon in Europe was more a businessman than an artist. Audubon-the-salesman tracking down subscribers for "Birds of America," dealing with engravers and publishers, is far less romantic figure than Jean Ragin, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain who grew up to be John James Audubon the American woodsman and great painter-naturalist of his age. And besides, the book is thick enough -- over 600 pages. The Harwoods have appended a bird index to the general index and included a helpful note to guide the reader to the best sources on Audubon's life and work.
"On the Road with John James Audubon" is a fine book to take along on travels this summer, and one that won't die quietly on the shelf back home.