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Nashville Scene Remaking History

New book offers fictional portrait of "Beagle" voyager

By Michael Sims

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  The most recent of Charles Darwin's many biographers describes Syms Covington, Darwin's assistant aboard the Beagle, as the "unacknowledged shadow behind Darwin's every triumph." This view is a revisionist promotion, but the Australian novelist Roger McDonald tops it in his new book, Mr. Darwin's Shooter. McDonald's clever and moving historical novel places Syms Covington in center stage and recasts Darwin as a supporting actor.

McDonald is a passionate writer who loves the tastes and textures of the world but never loses touch with the shifting, tempestuous emotions of his characters. Such attention and imagination naturally beget an original prose style, but it is still surprising and fun to find McDonald so playful and Dickensian in his new book. Not surprisingly, he is also a poet and essayist.

The hero of Mr. Darwin's Shooter is a surprising choice. Syms Covington is not an important historical figure just now receiving his due. He was simply in the right place at the right time and had the talent and character to fill a minor but essential role--man Friday, "shooter," and factotum to the young adventurer who would become one of the most influential scientists in history. Nowadays, only archaeologists of Darwin's era remember Syms Covington.

But the limitations of our knowledge about the historical Covington don't apply to fiction. Art, as someone once said, exists to cut the raw taste of the facts. And fortunately, Covington's shadowy role caught the imagination of a talented novelist. Rather than offering dry variations on a historical theme, Roger McDonald gives us a wild adventure around the world that has something of the verve of Robert Louis Stevenson and the lyricism of Herman Melville.

There is no grander theme than the determination of our place in the world, and there is no moment in history more fascinating than Darwin's much-mythologized voyage of discovery. However, you don't need to have read Darwin's own account of the Beagle voyage to appreciate McDonald's book. McDonald has created earthy, convincing, sometimes heartbreaking characters, and, like a film director, has placed their story in lovingly detailed sets. Every page sparkles with bits of business that flesh out the reader's picture of daily 19th-century existence. Even more impressive, the writer captures the taken-for-granted assumptions of an era dramatically different from our own.

Darwin needed a "shooter" because one of his chief goals, as unpaid naturalist on what was primarily a surveying mission, was the collection of animals, plants, and minerals new to science. This task required the killing of a great many animals and the immediate preservation of their corpses. Covington was only 15 years old when he first undertook these tasks aboard H.M.S. Beagle. Darwin himself was in his early 20s.

McDonald's Covington is unrefined to the point of wildness, but he is an astute observer. He sees straight through the protective manners of those around him. Darwin himself comes across as a young, well-meaning stuffed shirt: "Darwin refined his manner of keeping him at arm's length without spoiling his use. None of this was lost on Covington, who might have no science but could read the emotions the way naturalists read their Carolus Linnaeus."

In the first chapter, Syms Covington is 12 years old, running wild, still marinating in a primitive fundamentalism. McDonald's book follows him through his first meeting with Darwin, during his life aboard the Beagle, and on into middle age.

Covington, we learn, is most charming in his youth. The naif's discovery of the world rediscovers it for us. But Darwin and his shooter are out in the world not merely to admire nature's artworks but to determine their place in a scheme of things. In this regard, McDonald nicely captures the flavor of scientific adventure in the 1830s. "From birds to stones and bones and back to birds again," he writes, "the mood was always the looking under of surfaces."

Contrary to their frequent simplistic portrayals, artists and scientists are not enemies. Their tasks require the same tools--observation and imagination. Roger McDonald's Mr. Darwin's Shooter, like Darwin's own Voyage of the Beagle, proves this point. In either science or art, the most important thing is always the looking under of surfaces.

Michael Sims is the author of Darwin's Orchestra: An Almanac of Nature in History and the Arts.

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