Skeptical biologists looking at John James Audubon's bird paintings in the 1820s wondered if such strange creatures could really exist. Today, unfortunately, some no longer do, making his elephant-sized portraits all the more striking and valuable.
The artist who killed his subjects to immortalize them is as elusive as any of the birds he pursued. Born in Haiti to a seaman and a French chambermaid, Audubon was raised by his stepmother in France, and eventually sent to America to avoid conscription in Napoleon's Army. Perhaps this early life of flight encouraged his attraction to feathered animals, just as his unstable identity seems to have made him determined to find and record all the birds in North America.
Katherine Govier has captured this remarkable character in a novel called "Creation." She focuses on Audubon's journey to Labrador, which the painter described as "the most extensive and dreariest wilderness I have ever beheld." Little is known about his three-month voyage because, as Govier laments, Audubon's granddaughter excised "huge portions" of the surviving records, journals, and letters - particularly those relating to the summer of 1833. Here is a historical gap that only fiction can fill with any certainty.
The most intriguing move Govier makes in this quiet but stirring novel is her decision to wind the story of Audubon around the much lesser-known story of Henry Wolsey Bayfield. He was a captain (eventually an admiral) in Britain's Royal Navy who surveyed the dangerous and lonely western lakes of Canada.
As Govier tells it, the great mapmaker and the great bird painter meet again and again along the shore of Quebec. Reserved and gracious, Bayfield makes a perfect foil to Audubon, the provocateur, the genius, the marketer, the actor. As captain of the Gulnare, he moves under a sacred duty to his country and his men. Audubon, meanwhile, hates sailing and tosses his own crew through storms of egotism and despair, raging against anyone who won't risk his life to approach a treacherous cliff in search of new birds.
Both men are dedicated to completing projects of staggering breadth, but Audubon is a scientist whom everyone assumes is just an artist, while Bayfield is an artist whom everyone assumes is just a surveyor. Govier teases out their motives with a full appreciation for the magnitude of what drives them. She shows in particularly haunting stories that both of them draw as an act of resistance against death.
At the edge of the world, halfway through his money-losing project to paint all the birds in North America, Audubon works in a cold panic to finish before his competitors overtake him, creditors jail him, engravers abandon him, or he and his subjects die. His audacious book has attracted no more than 20 subscribers in the United States. The British have proven a little more susceptible to his peddling from door to door, but he has no reason to be optimistic. At 48, he's been a failure at everything he's ever attempted. He's powered only by the energy of his dream: "I came to understand that big was necessary," he tells Bayfield. "To be large as life. Myself and the birds. Nothing reduced. Nothing to limit the grandeur."
Through all this, Govier hovers beyond approval or condemnation, showing the artist in his natural habitat of selfishness and generosity, forced to murder the beings he loves. "Perhaps no one will know the birds again as I do," he thinks, determined to get them just right.
She's equally attentive to Captain Bayfield, a man of long-established order and great faith in the permanence of nature, who's nonetheless shaken by Audubon's use of a new word: "extinction." "What is this 'never,' " he asks incredulously. "How do we know it will 'never' return?" For the first time in his peaceful career, he's forced to consider that his maps will facilitate the arrival of more settlers who will fall upon Audubon's beloved birds for food or sport - and drive some into oblivion.
The landscape is forlorn and the ships claustrophobic, but Govier knows how to drift back into the past at opportune moments, supplying anecdotes we need to understand Audubon's troubled conscience. Some of the most fascinating scenes show the artist at a friend's house, flirting with a young woman who went on to make many uncredited contributions to "The Birds of America." Brief sightings of Audubon's wife and adult children confirm the artist's confession to Bayfield: "I would give over my life to this endeavor no matter what I had to sacrifice - even those who loved me."
This window on the 19th century and one of its most remarkable people is reason enough to enjoy "Creation," but Govier's invention of a friendship between Audubon and Bayfield is something even more rare and captivating. There's a mixture of tenderness and frankness between these two men - so different by all external qualifications - that fulfills her opening promise about the power of fiction to tell truths that history can't approach. She's caught the conflicted ferocity and beauty of Audubon's paintings in a story that rises above the burdens of artistic genius and speaks to us back on the ground.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to email@example.com.