Lively biography of intrepid, world-traveling ornithologist and cancer survivor Phoebe Snetsinger.
In her first book, journalist Gentile lovingly reanimates Snetsinger’s life (1931–99) using the renowned bird watcher’s memoir (Birding on Borrowed Time, 2003), letters, notebooks, poetry and newsletter articles, as well as interviews with friends and family. The plucky, tomboyish daughter of advertising entrepreneur Leo Burnett, Snetsinger married a high-school friend who became an agriculture professor. By 1965, she was a bored housewife raising four children in rural Minneapolis. When a neighbor excitedly pointed out a Blackburnian Warbler, she became hooked on bird watching. Snetsinger began creating her own “life list,” an inventory of all species seen and identified. She joined local birding groups, which kindled her protective love of nature. Upon her father’s death in 1971, she inherited a large amount of money; it fortified her family and allowed Snetsinger to invest in farmland and travel worldwide to pursue her passion. As her children grew older, and she and her husband grew apart, she spent more time on journeys to such bird-rich locations as Mexico, Indonesia, Ecuador and Trinidad. Following a trip to Panama in 1981, Snetsinger, barely 50, received a crushing diagnosis of terminal melanoma. Believing that she had less than a year to live only accelerated her globetrotting pursuit of as-yet-unseen bird species and her obsession with expanding her unrivaled life list. Gentile details Snetsinger’s increasing recklessness as she experienced years of miraculous remissions from cancer. Her hunt took on “a compulsive, even desperate, tinge” that sacrificed personal health and safety right up to her 1999 death in a driving accident while birding in Madagascar. The book’s chronology is a bit choppy, but the prose delightfully conveys Gentile’s engagement with her subject.
Compassionate and comprehensive.