From a prolific writer and producer of documentaries (including Nature) for PBS: a collection that’s varyingly deft and has many subjects—including nature and animals.
Whitty’s “science” stories are in fact the strongest here, including the title piece with its simultaneously tender and melancholy portrait of Tonga from its paradisiacal pre–Captain Cook era down to the abused and species-depleted place of today—though thankfully still not without its great tortoises, which are wondrously described by Whitty indeed. The soberly comic “Darwin in Heaven” is just as fine: a chronicle of Darwin’s ongoing research into the mystery of life once he’s in heaven—and of his consultations there with, among others, Lao-tzu and Richard P. Feynman. Much less prepossessing, though, is a tale told by zoo animals (“Lucifer’s Alligator”) that labors preciously under the weight of its message; while “Jimmy Under Water,” about Antarctic ocean-diving, defies credibility in spite of its knowledgeable details. Other stories, also, are filled chock-full with informational expertise yet seem programmatic—like “Daguerreotype,” a look at generations of child-bearing women in a family—or just don’t convince psychologically—like “Stealing from the Dead,” about a young woman painter who seduces a Byron biographer in Venice and then, quite inexplicably, turns on him. “Senti’s Last Elephant” offers a close-up of African safari land but suffers from its easy satire of complacent Americans, while “Falling Umbrella” tries hard—and almost succeeds—in wrenching genuine emotion from its portrayal of the old age and death of a widowed mathematician. “The Dreams of Dogs” closes the volume with the tale of a young widow who moves onto two thousand wilderness acres in the Pacific Northwest and lives out her life there in the company only of the few local Indians—and of her dogs, who, like the tortoises, are described with a tender, knowledgeable perfection.
Facts and skills galore in a mix of stories, the best quite fine.