A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds
By Olivia Gentile
Bloomsbury. 345 pp. $26
nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed by Frank Wilson
When Phoebe Snetsinger was killed at age 68 in a car accident in Madagascar in 1999, she had seen more different kinds of birds than anyone ever - 8,674 out of 10,223 species, says Olivia Gentile in
Shortly before the accident, in fact, she had recorded her latest, a red-shouldered vanga, described by Gentile as "a drab bird, much like a sparrow," but with "glaring eyes." It was also a rarity, having been rediscovered only two years earlier.
The achievement would have been remarkable under any circumstances. Given Snetsinger's circumstances, it was even more so. For, as Gentile points out, "It had been thirty-four years since she'd started birding, eighteen years since she'd gotten her melanoma 'death sentence,' nine years since her last recurrence, and four years since she'd gotten to eight thousand species."
This last detail should not be underestimated. If you've seen 8,000 different birds, the ones you haven't seen have to be pretty rarae aves.
Snetsinger, a Swarthmore College grad who had taught briefly at the Baldwin School, obviously had to travel the world over to compile her list. She was undaunted by hardship. But the world can be a dangerous place. On her first trip to Papua New Guinea, the van she was riding in was attacked by a mob. On her second trip, she was gang-raped in Port Moresby.
Snetsinger, who was married with four children, was able to travel when and where she wanted thanks to money she had inherited from her father, Leo Burnett, who had founded a highly successful ad agency. Burnett, like Agamemnon in Strauss' opera Elektra, is the ghostly presence haunting this book.
Speaking of her passion for birding, Snetsinger once said, "I'm as crazy about this as my father was about advertising."
The comparison was apt. As Gentile observes, "The three Burnett children liked their father, but they didn't see him much." Likewise Snetsinger's husband, Dave, and their children saw increasingly less of wife and mother as she more and more heeded the call of the wild. She allowed neither her mother's death nor her daughter Sue's wedding to interfere with travel plans. As her husband put it, "To me it was Leo Burnett all over again."
Herein lies the emotional heart of Phoebe Snetsinger's life. Gentile senses this: "If she had originally fallen for Dave because he was so different from her father, she might have pulled away from him for the same reason: He wasn't formidable, worldly or daring, as Leo had been - and as she was becoming."
Unfortunately, Gentile doesn't focus on this as steadily as she should have, and for this I am inclined to blame her publisher. The absence of a strong editorial hand is evident: "Once, she woke them in the middle of the night to see a lunar eclipse, when the earth's shadow falls upon the moon, turning it a spooky orange." I think most people have a pretty good idea of what a lunar eclipse is, just as I think most people have heard of the GI Bill (which comes up later) and don't need to have it explained to them.
Such things are merely annoying, but theorizing that Snetsinger was somehow a victim of societal constraints that forced her to become a housewife and not pursue a career is both distracting and dubious.
Snetsinger was under no pressure during her Swarthmore days to change her major from science to arts or to get married shortly after graduation. Moreover, there were plenty of women working in America in the 1950s, women like my mother and grandmother, toiling away in factories of one sort or another. Of course, theirs were not the glamorous careers that upper middle-class types like Snetsinger may have claimed to hanker after.
These objections aside, there is a great deal to like about this book. Gentile has certainly done her homework, and her enthusiasm in sharing her research is infectious. She is also quite good at describing birds. Here's her take on the short-legged ground-roller: "a chunky, fifteen-inch-tall, mostly green-and-white bird with fine brown markings on its belly that resemble fish scales and 'long drooping buff whiskers' that look like an old man's beard."
This knack for characterizing our feathered friends in a way that gives them some personality is matched by Rebecca Layton's illustrations, which are delightful. In comparison, Snetsinger's own descriptions of what she saw tend to be pedestrian.
In the end, Snetsinger's obsession seems to have been not birds, but herself, a chasing after something out there in the hope of finding something missing within.
That may be why, however much there was to admire about her, there was so little to like.