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Mr. Darwin's Shooter


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Based on real people and events, this seventh novel by Australian National Book Award winner McDonald explores in microcosm the crisis of faith arising from the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. As a poverty-stricken but devout teenager steeped in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Syms Covington finds himself a seaman aboard H.M.S. Beagle as it sets off on its famous voyage. Determined to better himself, Syms wrangles his way into Darwin's service, becoming his chief specimen gatherer and ultimately the one whose personal collection of Galápagos finches offers the proof Darwin needs for his theory‘a theory that strikes at the heart of Covington's own faith. Unfortunately, McDonald's attempt to use the language of popular historical fiction to explore this deeply serious topic detracts from its overall impact. Nonetheless, this book offers an intriguing look at an obscure personality. Suitable for public libraries.‘David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL

Charles Darwin dramatically changed the course of human history, but the drama of his life story pales next to this vividly imagined rendering of big-hearted Syms Covington, the colorful sailor, hunter, taxidermist and manservant who spent seven years at Darwin's side collecting the specimens on which the theory of evolution was based. Covington takes to the sea as a 12-year-old in 1828, leaving his home in Bedford, England, under the wing of Christian evangelist John Phipps, who assembles a group of devout boys to sign aboard the survey ship South Sea Castle, bound for South America. Several years later, now an experienced sailor aboard HMS Beagle, ambitious Covington wangles his way into the service of Darwin. Much later, a grizzled, nearly deaf, middle-aged Covington has settled and raised a family in rural Australia, where he awaits the publication of On the Origin of Species, troubled by his role in perhaps subverting the faith that has served him so well through all his adventures. McDonald (1915; Slipstream; Shearer's Motel) fashions a captivating seafarer's tale rich in period detail and insight into relations among men. While the real, historical Covington may have been lost in the margins, McDonald's vigorous incarnation will be difficult to forget. (Jan.)

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