What Species of Creatures: Animal Relations From the New World, by Sharon Kirsch, Vancouver, New Star Press, 2008, 228 pp paperback.
Imagine a writer who writes a book that tries to get inside the minds of the European explorers, settlers, and functionaries as they encountered native fauna along the various frontiers of what is now Canada during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Sound like another of those lately too-popular and overly rhetorical exercises in cultural self-loathing, filled with lurid descriptions of animal cruelty? Not at all. Early on, the author opines that “The real interest of Homo sapiens lies in the specifics of its global expansion.” She then takes us through a raft of those specifics, never really wavering from that view. She is, in the best sense, an interested party, in both her own species and in the species encountered in the New World.
Even better, What Species of Creatures is exactly what its title advertises: a lavishly researched and documented book that explores the ambiguity built into its title with no authorial axe or grinding tools visible. And yet this is hardly the work of a writer who works by dispassionate observation, staying coolly on the outside and upside, gazing down on subjects less sophisticated than she. There’s little of the familiar distance here found in a conventionally scientific tract, where the voice-of-science narration lends the illusion that ordered facts are piling up amidst white lab coats and weighty binders. This writer climbs inside her human subjects, looks out through their eyes, doesn’t flinch at their blunders, their unconventional spelling, and doesn’t condescend when they garner an insight, however small or addled. At times, she gets so deep inside their heads that she speaks and thinks as they do, occasionally to the point where readers get excluded. That may be the price of reading a writer doing a strain of cultural anthropology she may have invented all on her own, not merely the delivered goods of a scientist who happens to write well. There’s something remarkable and unsettling going on here, and it’s not just that as often as not, the author, a Toronto woman named Sharon Kirsch, delivers the goods.
This is Sharon Kirsch’s first book, and despite almost four pages of acknowledgments, its difficult to determine how she did it, and why. When I contacted her publisher, Rolf Maurer, he told me the manuscript came over the transom, and that he doesn’t really know who she is, either, aside from being a person who wrote a deeply original book. A copy editor? He wondered aloud. Maybe, but one of those rare ones who spent her career suspecting that she can write better than the writers she’s editing, and—rarer still—turns out to be right.
Yet if she’s a talented encyclopaedia, she’s also eccentric, and the book wanders along its own organizational logic. After a longish introduction that mainly serves to undermine our prejudices about the brave but mainly mercantile men who wandered the various frontiers of pre-Canada Canada, she examines hummingbirds, red foxes, beavers, female humans, and then concludes with an ABC of whatever she thinks is missing. One of the simultaneous joys and annoyances of the book is that Kirsch has absolutely no compunction about interrupting the ostensible narrative to cover some sub-topic that grips her, as with, say, a long quasi-Freudian analysis of the treatment of snakes in the New World, in which we find that Upper Canada was considered to be an infested den of rattlesnakes. Nor is she afraid to aphorize and quote herself to ground and shape her narrative—somewhat confusingly, since she employs the voice of her 16th and 17th century sources with a seamless virtuosity, and doesn’t bother to tell us that the extensive footnotes are a helpful crib. And so it goes.
The result is fascinating and informative—two words I don’t throw around casually—but occasionally confusing and even irritating. I was interested enough to go through the book a second and third time, but I worry that some readers won’t show similar patience, and that thus the book isn’t going to get the audience it deserves. The reality is that What Species of Creatures isn’t going be a success within any of the disciplines it bridges, because it demolishes them. It isn’t anthropology or science, and it’s too busy being what it is to pretend to genre.
But I’ll tell you what. This book was tremendous fun to read, and I wouldn’t trade it for a dozen of those navel-gazer novels beloved of Heather Reisman.