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  • Review: Darwin’s Tortoise November 10, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing has cash flow problems at the moment. Several newspapers that normally pay him bundles of nice green notes have been taking their time to slap the readies down. Book buying has, therefore, been severely curtailed. The purchase of Darwin’s Tortoise by Robin Stewart is though one exception that Beachcombing is glad to have made.

    RS covers the story of Harriet, the tortoise that Darwin brought away from the Galapagos islands. Harriet arrived, by a roundabout route, in Australia, where she lived out her days in gardens and zoos, dying at 175 in 2006. Beachcombing himself has examined Harriet’s history in some detail in a previous post and Beachcombing *loves* Harriet.

    Beachcombing was, in truth, expecting a Simon-Winchester-like book: all facts, a bit of steady lyricism on how cool Darwin was, a measure of creationist bashing and, of course, ‘that’ tortoise as a kind of afterthought.

    Imagine Beachcombing’s surprise then when DT arrived and he discovered that he had accidentally bought a 150 page children’s book.

    Children’s books have certainly changed since Beachcombing was a little squirt. This one had the remembered luscious illustrations, but also a glossary and index. Indeed, Beachcombing found himself wondered whether the multi-tasking generation could get their way through half of it without running for the playstation or ipod or whatever the hell they call the pieces of kryptonite that they carry around on their belts.

    But Beachcombing also found himself reflecting on what an efficient medium a children’s book is: indeed, as soon as Beachcombing finishes this he’s off to add some facts to his post on Harriet. The author manages to pack an extraordinary amount of information into her pages, the effect being rather as if Paddington Bear had decided to write a Wikipedia entry.

    Maybe Google should give up scanning the world’s older books badly and just pay a thousand authors like Robin to codify knowledge in kiddy-style volumes? Certainly, the soothing paternal tones – banned from adult discourse – do wonders for the soul: ‘Nobody could seriously believe that to cut into [Harriet’s] bone would be painless. Perhaps the problem is that some people don’t think at all.’ etc etc.

    In any case, RS gets out all the major points in Harriet’s career: the encounter with Darwin, her tortoise companions Tom and Dick and their deaths, the move to Austrialia, the sex change – a visiting professor realized that Harry was Harriet. (Incidentally Beachcombing only noticed at the end that Robin was an authoress rather than an author.)

    But there are also some gems previously unknown to Beachcombing including the ‘Great Escape’, the failed long-distance courtship with Lonesome George, the flood of 1893 and the traumatic orangutan attack. Beachcombing was engrossed: so much so that, while reading on the train, he gasped aloud when Antipodean reprobates carved a graffiti on Harriet’s person. The whole carriage turned to look…

    This is the point where Beachcombing normally says that he will now read the author’s other books but Wombat: Bush Babies Solo Series, Chemical Free Home and Envirocat don’t really do it for him. Instead, he hopes that Robin turns to Tu’imalilia, Captain Cook’s tortoise: however low the bank account got Beachcombing would make sure he had enough green backs for that.

    Any other books or articles on Harry/Harriet then Beachcombing would love to know: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com