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Mr. Darwin's Shooter Hardcover – January, 1999

4.2 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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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 (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,346,287 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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 list...as written, he was truly an engaging character and with remarkable depth.
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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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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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Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed this book very much. I really had no idea what it was about before I picked it up, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it really hooked me, as far as the story goes. Like many others have mentioned, the language really is from another time, and I'm sure I missed out on a lot of meaning that the book contained, as far as the dialogue goes, but overall the story was pretty easy to follow. The author has done some pretty intensive research and I had to remind myself every so often that the story is based on true event and that these were real people.

I did like the conflict between religion and science that Darwin took on. I think his understanding of faith was very comparable to what someone in his position would be thinking and, even though subtle, was a major theme of the book. I would say give it a read, however, I would not read again.
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