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Mr. Darwin's Shooter Hardcover – January, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

In Mr. Darwin's Shooter, Roger McDonald explores the evolution not just of flora and fauna but of friendship and belief. At 12 young Syms Covington escapes his father's slaughterhouse and England for life at sea. Already six feet tall and bursting with innocence, ambition, and faith, he dreams of glory. But three years later, in 1831, Covington is still only an odd-job boy and ship's fiddler on a barque named after a "beagle-hound." This boat, though, will prove his career salvation, for its cosseted passenger is Charles Darwin. The young naturalist soon marks the sailor out as an adequate aide, a "willing accomplice" to what the grown Covington will later consider "a great murder." By murder he means less the massive plundering of birds and beasts ("stopping the hearts of small life") than the undermining of Biblical truth. If species do in fact evolve, Covington wonders, what proof can there be of God's handiwork?

Syms Covington really was Darwin's shooter from 1832 to 1839, and even after he emigrated to Australia, the men continued their tense relationship--until, that is, a copy of The Origin of Species arrived. Though the boy was never the naturalist's "beau ideal" of a collector, still, Roger McDonald writes,

It was a marriage of convenience they had, and Darwin was like the fiancée who gives her consent to the match for reasons of suitability but through lack of love rues the intimacy--yet all the time lauding the practicality.
If this talented author occasionally lays on the archaisms too heavily, in Mr. Darwin's Shooter he has nonetheless fashioned a sensuous, provocative adventure. --Molly Winterbotham

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 364 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Pr (January 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 087113733X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871137333
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.8 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,016,971 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

The Australian writer Roger McDonald was born at Young, NSW, in 1941, and educated at country schools and in Sydney. When he started writing fiction, in his 30s, he said that "nothing else seemed able to express a full range of characters and moods, the panorama of Australian life that I felt was there to portray". His first novel was "1915", a novel of Gallipoli, winner of the Age Book of the Year, and made into a highly successful eight-part ABC-TV mini-series (now on DVD).

Since 1980 McDonald has published nine novels and two works of non-fiction, all dealing with aspects of the Australian experience in vivid prose and with intense characterisation. Seven of his books are available from Random House, Australia. He has lived on farms (no farm animals except poultry and a corrugated iron sheep) outside Braidwood, near Canberra, with intervals spent in Sydney and New Zealand. His account of travelling the outback with a team of New Zealand shearers, "Shearers' Motel", won the National Book Council Banjo Award for non-fiction. His bestselling novel "Mr Darwin's Shooter", was awarded the New South Wales, Victorian, and South Australian Premiers' Literary Awards. "The Ballad of Desmond Kale" won Australia's premier literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award in 2006, as well as the South Australian Festival Prize for Fiction and the Victorian Vance Palmer Prize. A long story that eventually became part of "When Colts Ran" in 2010 was awarded the O. Henry Prize (USA) in 2008.

McDonald says that he writes out of the harsh beauty of the Australian landscape and the way it shapes character.

His ninth novel, "The Following" was published in September 2013. It traces a story of political attachment over two generations.

Customer Reviews

Syms Covington, the protagonist of this magnificent novel, was a real person.
Roger Brunyate
I almost didn't finish this book because of the difficult sentence structure and just plain hard to understand writing at times.
Mary Reinert
His books, in particular Mr Darwin's Shooter, should be read by anyone wishing to understand that truth.
Stephen A. Haines

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on January 21, 2001
Format: Hardcover
"I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth"?
Thomas Henry Huxley's challenge to "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce confronted established religion with Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Although sold out on the first day of publication, it's safe to say that few readers, even highly educated ones, comprehended On the Origin of Species. What of those lacking liberal education or otherwise at least well imbued with a tradition of faith? Huxley's barb brought about instant clarity. Science was uncovering secrets hitherto trapped in the earth. One could either accept the information revealed by diligent labour in field and laboratory, or withdraw into the comfortable mythology of faith. Put so simply the options sound an easy choice, but in that era [indeed, in this one as well!] abandoning faith had no match in bringing about an emotional wrench.
One man, vitally involved in the work leading to the clash at Oxford, was not at the debate. He was far away in Pambula, New South Wales, running cattle. Roger McDonald has chosen this most central of all possible people as a focal point in the debate between science and Christianity. Syms Covington, the Beagle's sailor chosen to become Mr Darwin's Shooter, collected many of the specimens of birds and animals Darwin examined in developing his theory. McDonald depicts him as a Congregationalist Christian, a sect viewed suspiciously in Victorian England, but one which encouraged education and learning. This dichotomy allows McDonald to show Covington growing increasingly mindful of the importance of what he and Darwin are bringing into view. Covington knows The Book Darwin is writing will bring it all together.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By "jjduda" on March 3, 2000
Format: Paperback
This book represented to me, above everything else, the story of a man that we've never heard of before, who played a major role in helping Charles Darwin formulate his theory of Evolution by Natrual Selection. This book is about Syms Covington, field assistant to Darwin during and shortly after the voyage of the beagle. His realization of the theory's implications is an epiphany that McDonald scripts brilliantly, as Covington is torn between pride in his role, anger for lack of recognition, and fear because of the conflict with his faith. This thread looms again and again, building suspense as we wait with Covington for "The Origin" to be published-or, really, unleashed upon the world. It is this emotional conflict that is a key element of this book. On the down side, it gets off to a slow start and, unfortunately in my mind, there isn't enough interaction between Covington and Darwin...the day-to-day stuff of tromping in paradise collecting ad infinitum, prepairing specimens, measuring, etc. However, that may have been intended or necessary because of their backgrounds: darwin was from the aristocracy and covington was a commoner. That comes across in the book, but I think that it could have been explored much more.
I have both a personal and professional interest in natural history and view Darwin as one of my scientific heros. I've just added little known syms covington to that written, he was truly an engaging character and with remarkable depth.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on July 12, 1999
Format: Hardcover
It is such a pleasure to find a book which grapples with some of the Big Ideas of history. Surely the theory of evolution and the publication of Origin of the Species are among the most life-changing developments in intellectual history in the past two hundred years. McDonald does justice to these, attempting to present momentous ideas with the seriousness they deserve while at the same time creating compassion for the people whose immediate lives and religious beliefs are seriously challenged, if not threatened. Though some may feel that the use of 19th century language and vocabulary are pretentious, I found them completely appropriate to the subject, creating a realistic setting for the ideas and themes. Since fiction by definition involves pretense, the use of "dated" language is not necessarily a failing. This is a challenging, fascinating work, which is, at the same time, great fun to read.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 28, 2003
Format: Paperback
Mr. Darwin's Shooter recreates the 19th-century world in language that is baroque, evocative, and almost poetic. The book is filled with impressive learning on almost everything -- from life on sailing ships, to the genocide of Argentina's Indian population, to the nitty-gritty of slaughtering and skinning animals. Unfortunately, information and language don't necessarily make for a great novel. In the case of Mr. Darwin's Shooter, the narrative is glacial, Charles Darwin has only a secondary role, and, contrary to many of the reviews below, the book never grapples with the "Big Idea" of Faith vs. Science except in an incidental, indirect way. I liked the book, because I like pretty writing and I'm interested in the 19th century -- but there's no way that I would read it a second time.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Damian Kelleher on May 24, 2006
Format: Paperback
Mr Darwin's Shooter, Roger McDonald's sixth book, and the winner of a number of Australian literary awards, including the National Fiction Award for 2000, is a mixed bag of wondrous, layered writing encased within a dull plot that is unsure where it wishes to go.

Syms Covington was Charles Darwin's 'shooter', during his second voyage on the Beagle. This title has a double meaning, in that Covington literally shot at and collected the vast specimen of bird and animal, insect and fish, from which Darwin drew upon when composing his scientific treatise, The Origin of the Species. Further to that, Covington acted as a manservant, a catch-all, a 'men's wife', an obedient dog. But never, ever a friend.

The novel is split into two distinct time periods, the first of which travels at a much faster pace, to link with the second by the book's end. We are shown the young man's life as a ship's boy, sweeping the decks and praying for his soul alongside John Phipps, a brooding, angry man who wanders the lands, scouring the poor towns and villages of England for young boys willing to leave their homes for a life on the sea and a soul with God. During this time, we are exposed to some of the more exotic locations throughout the world - or exotic to an Englishman, at any rate - and we are introduced to the man who would play such a large part in the life of Covington, and the mind of the 19th century - Charles Darwin.

The second timeline is set after the voyages, when The Origin of Species has been published and is already creating a stir. Covington lives in Australia, and is a rich, cantankerous middle-aged man. He befriends a young doctor, MacCracken, who attempts to discover the mystery behind the man.
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