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Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly Hardcover – May 1, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Sue Halpern, a gifted student of the natural world, has a knowing passion for butterflies--"not love, exactly, offered suddenly, but a similar quickening of heart and desire ... tugging on my imagination as if it were a loose sleeve."

In Four Wings and a Prayer, that passion takes flight in quest of the monarch, a species of butterfly suddenly much in the news. In the company of freelance biologist Bill Calvert, ecologist Homero Aridjis, and other scientists and activists, Halpern travels into the highlands of Michoacan, Mexico, to which monarchs born east of the Rocky Mountains migrate each autumn, flying as much as 200 miles a day to get there before the onset of the highland winter. There she ponders the complexities of the monarch's life--after all, she writes, "how did the monarch butterflies from the eastern United States and Canada, millions of them, end up every year in the same unlikely spot, a remote and largely inhospitable fifty acres of oyamelis pine forest?"--and the unfortunate events that have felled monarchs by the untold millions in recent years, including the destruction of habitat and climate change.

Halpern's enthusiasm for Lepidoptera is catching, and her graceful advocacy of the monarch should inspire renewed concern for their well-being in the world. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Accomplished author (Migrations to Solitude) and journalist (co-founder of the magazine Doubletake) Halpern has a passion for monarch butterflies that drives this evocative, insightful portrait of a species and the people who study it. Every autumn, monarchs in the Eastern United States and Canada migrate thousands of miles to a handful of Mexican overwintering sites, where they rest for the return trip home. "[N]o single butterfly ever makes the round trip," yet thousands converge on the same few sites year after year. Monarchs are the only butterflies to migrate such long distances; the question of how they find their way remains, according to Halpern, one of the great unsolved mysteries of animal biology. Among the a host of colorful scientists and dedicated volunteers she visits are Bill Calvert, the "cowboy entomologist" who sleeps in his truck when out collecting field data, and Chip Taylor, who looks like Father Christmas, snacks on bee pollen and has mobilized hundreds of volunteers to help determine the butterfly's migration routes. Not afraid of dirtying her hands, Halpern weighs butterflies with Calvert by the side of the road in Mexico, tags and raises monarchs with her eight-year-old daughter at their home in the Adirondacks and takes a glider ride to better understand the thermal forces that propel the butterflies for much of their journey. Her lively, lyrical account of monarch life will delight armchair and active naturalists and anyone interested in scientists in action and skies loud with the beat of wings. (May

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1 edition (May 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037540208X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375402081
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,931,370 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

63 of 76 people found the following review helpful By T.W Trotter on May 27, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Author Sue Halpern has written a book about her time spent with people across North America who follow the supposed migration of Monarch Butterflies through the United States to Mexico. Entitled Four Wings and a Prayer - Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly, the book chronicles her journeys throughout the US and Canada in pursuit of knowledge about the Monarch butterfly while detailing her interaction with the various butterfly enthusiasts (lepidopterists) that she meets along the way. Superficially, the book's subject would seem to hold much promise. Interesting people, little-known facts, sweeping vistas described in stirring detail; there would seem to much that this book could offer the reader, sadly, not much of it is here. Like far too many writers today, Halpern can't seem to keep herself out of the story. In the context of this book, which indeed includes some fine passages, Halpern's New Age navel- gazing is largely unwanted and often tiresome; "What is passion? I asked myself again." Halpern writes (and the reader cringes) and then goes on to wax philosophically about `knowing before understanding' or some other such airy-fairy mysticism. It's unfortunate that in a book that offers glimpses of some true characters Halpern can't help interjecting herself. The reader is told that Bill Calvert is a legend among Lepidopterists not only for his research but for his passion and unique character, yet description of that character is largely limited to repeated references to his messy truck and trite answers to the questions of others. The reader can forgive Calvert this though after having been subjected to Halpern's rhetorical wonking - by the end of the book the reader suspects that Calvert might not have been so taciturn had the company been less vocal.Read more ›
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By sam bryks on May 19, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Sue Halpern has a gift of composition to describe the wonder of the Monarch Butterly that practically takes your breath away. The book begins with her journey with a butterfly tracker real life "Indiana Jones" character as they drive to the butterfly preserves in Mexico. Her description of her first visit there which happened earlier with her tiny daughter and the truly awesome, almost religious experience of the sound of millions of butterflies rustling wings and of butterflies alighting on her daughter walking up her arm, the child watching without fear takes you into this book like a lover invites you to be with her. This is a book for all ages, and will be a standard to invite readers to the mysteries and beauty of nature. It is also hoped that the book serves to help advocacy to preserve this miracle of nature which is taken foregranted by so many. Sue Halpern is a writer in the same pantheon as Barry Lopez and Farley Mowat in her research skills, her love of nature and her literary abilities.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 31, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Halpern has the precision of a scientist, the grace of a poet, and the passion of someone truly informed and alarmed by humanity's headlong tilt against the beauty and variety of our natural world. Never shying away from the complexities of her subject--scientists and nature-lovers from a rich and profligate country demanding preservation sacrifices from the peasants of a poor one--she writes a seamless, and ultimately very moving, tale of wonder.
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Format: Paperback
Sue Halpern has written a wonderful, balanced book of one of nature's magnificent, enigmatic phenomenon - the migration of the monarch butterfly. Each winter the monarchs stay, by the millions, in a relatively small area in the forests of the Michoacan mountains, to the west of Mexico City. In the spring they migrate north, covering much of the area east of the Rockies. No single butterfly makes the entire journey; rather they complete the entire journey in two or three generations. They fed on milkweed, extracting toxins that make them poisonous to many species of birds. Halpern logged many a mile in pursuit of the butterfly migration, including stays in Cape May, NJ, Kansas, Texas, rough rides in Mexico, and as far removed as Hawaii, glimpsing the elusive albino monarch. Halpern has an excellent grasp of the current science on the monarchs, and is able to explain it to the non-lepidopterists, which is most of us. Mainly though, science still has far more questions than answers, which is part of the fun.

But as the subject quote indicates, the book is very much about passion, the force that motivates the many people involved in studying the monarchs. Halpern devotes an equal measure to describing the people involved with these butterflies. She starts with laconic Bill Calvert, in his `50's, driving an old pick-up truck, and she accompanies him on one of his pilgrimages to Mexico. Naturally there are serious, and essentially petty funds among the long-time "leadership" in the monarch field, captured when Fred Urquhart, a Canadian professor who was one of the first to start the tagging of monarch, refused to shake the hand of Lincoln Brower, another professor who had deduced, with Calvert's help, the place of the monarch's over-winter refuge.
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By MattG on May 16, 2015
Format: Paperback
This is a feel good book. It opens the reader to the world of Monarch Butterflies and the people who study them.

It is an easy read and is as much about the author's path to learn about the butterflies as it is about the butterflies themselves. I don't think this is a bad thing, but it should be pointed out for those who just want to read about the butterflies.

All in all, I would recommend this book. It made me feel good about life and nature and I learned a littlie something.
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