Eliot Saxby, the collector of the title and narrator of the book, heads for the Arctic in search of the elusive—and perhaps extinct—great auk.
The year is 1845, and Saxby makes his treacherous voyage on behalf of some English gentlemen who have a bet about whether there are any great auks that remain alive. Capt. Sykes is at the helm of the Amethyst, and he heads a crew of hardy and hardened sailors. Incongruously, also on the journey is one Edward Bletchley, an English gentleman, along with his cousin (or perhaps “cousin”) Clara, an attractive young woman. Sykes has been paid to veer off his usual course to accommodate the ornithological pursuit of the naturalist Saxby. Although one mystery in the novel obviously involves the search for the last of the great auks, another involves Saxby’s certainty that, 10 years earlier, he had gotten to know Clara under a different name, “Celeste,” when he worked for her father, though Clara has no recollection of ever having met Saxby. They form a bond, and both become greatly excited when they discover a small colony of great auks on a remote island. Excitement turns to outrage, however, when Sykes announces that he plans to kill the last of the birds and thus guarantee their extinction, and their skins will therefore be immensely valuable to collectors and museums. Saxby watches helplessly while Sykes’ crew methodically kills the auks, but he’s able to conceal an injured auk on board. He and Clara carefully tend the auk, feeding it and nursing it. Miraculously, the auk even lays an egg, assuring the further existence of the species, but Sykes and his duplicitous first mate, Quinlan French, turn out to know more than Saxby suspects.
Page shapes a fascinating historical narrative and has moving insights into our sometimes-dubious relationship to the natural world.