Jane Christmas Reviews Woman, Watching (ECW 2022) by Merilyn Simonds

Don’t be fooled by the cardinal and binoculars on the cover. This is more than a bird book.

In fact, there are so many extraordinary episodes in the life of Louise de Kiriline Lawrence you will wonder why it hasn’t been given the full Netflix treatment. Where to begin? With our Swedish-born heroine’s pedigree and early life (nature-loving parents; goddaughter of the Queen of Denmark)? Her whirlwind marriage to a White Russian during the Revolution? Her harrowing 22-day journey from Stockholm to Archangel on the edge of the Arctic Circle? How about her emigration to Canada where she winds up as an outpost nurse smack dab in the midst of the Dionne quintuplets’ circus? Or her retreat into the Ontario bush where a tentative foray into birdwatching turns her into one of North America’s premiere ornithologists? It’s a captivating story.

But it really begins with the Second World War. When Louise’s second husband, Len, was dispatched overseas, it nudged her into avian action, giving her the space to nurture her burgeoning passion. The idea of someone traipsing through the woods listening for birdsong while the rest of the world grappled with bombs and gas chambers is a jarring dichotomy, but by then Louise had had her fair share of war. She tuned out everything except the birds.

She was self-taught, but when she was stumped, she asked. The collegial, generous replies to her letters from scientists and heads of university departments and institutions reminds us of a kinder time. Today, it is doubtful any professional would accord the time of day to the likes of a Louise de Kiriline Lawrence.

And yet she astounded them. She freely shared her intensive research and statistics. She once undertook a dawn-to-dusk study—14 hours in all—in the bush, on her haunches, jotting the music and behaviour of a red-eyed vireo. “The red-eye [vireo] fed while it sang, often trilling with its mouth full. It stopped once to chase away another vireo. After four hours of constant singing, it stopped to preen and feed for half an hour, then started up again, although at a more leisurely pace—a mere thirty-eight songs a minute. By noon, the vireo had sung 14,027. … By the time the sun was sinking, the bird was high in another aspen, moving perch to perch, dropping sweet notes into the still evening air. …” Louise recorded an astonishing 22,197 songs.

Merilyn Simonds has done a masterful job, interspersing the text with her own memories of bush life, and her brief encounters with Louise. She shares her subject’s passion for birds, and tells us of her own observations on migratory and nesting behaviour.

This blend of biography, science and memoir gives the book its soul, and leavens the complex personality of the indomitable Louise. On one hand, she was appalled how her Dionne colleagues—a doctor and a nurse—cashed in on the quintuplets’ fame, yet she was dismayed when her own (albeit more subtle) book did not reap the same lucrative outcome they achieved. She shied from the limelight, but simultaneously ground her teeth when it did not fall on her. She was not always to blame. When her book The Lovely and the Wild received the prestigious John Burroughs Medal for nature writing (she was the first Canadian recipient) we share her infuriation at her publisher’s lack of support.

Despite the book’s rich depth of research there are curious omissions. Simonds names the prime minister (Trudeau) who sent Louise a congratulatory telegram but not the premier of Ontario who did (John Robarts).  Also absent is Louise’s death date (April 27, 1992) and the circumstances. Louise was in her 99th year, but the reader yearns to know: Did she die in the psychiatric hospital where husband Len had died two years earlier? Was she alone? Was there an obit?

Still, it is a brilliant book. Simonds’s style is engaging; you cannot help but be drawn in. This definitive portrait of Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and her contribution to Canadian ornithology is sure to captivate.

Merilyn Simonds divides her time between Mexico and Ontario. Her nonfiction book, The Convict Lover, made the 1996 bestseller lists, was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction and was adapted for the stage.
Jane Christmas lives in the UK. Her fifth book, Open House: A Life in Thirty-Two Moves, was published by HarperCollins in the Spring of 2020, hitting both The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star non-fiction bestseller lists within a month of publication.

Posted by Debra Martens

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