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.
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