Last of the Curlews--Book and Movie Review
Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth
This lens is mostly about the book Last of the Curlews, a book by Canadian writer Fred Bodsworth and about the very first ABC After School Special that aired in 1972 and 1973 of the same name. Warning: There will be spoilers in this lens. I will analyze and critique this book as well as give information about different editions and about the subject of the book itself, the Eskimo Curlew.
This is the story of a dying species, the Eskimo curlew (Numenius Borealis) a bird who numbered possibly in the millions at one time. It was one of the most common shorebirds in the western hemisphere. However, during the uncontrolled market hunts in the late 1800s, almost all of them were wiped out within 10 years. And, even when the majority of the birds had disappeared, they were still being hunted until virtually none were left by 1890. But, a few stragglers continued on and they continued to get shot right up to 1918 when the Migratory Bird Act was implemented. But, by then, there were few left. A straggler, usually a lone male, would be seen from time to time.
By the time this book was published in 1955, it was thought that the species had gone extinct in the late 1940s/early 1950s. The stories of lone male stragglers migrating back and forth in search of a mate is what inspired this book. It is a story of one of those lone males and his search for a mate and what happens to him.
Photo in this module is of my personal copy of the Counterpoint edition of this book. Different editions of the book will be discussed below.
Summary (There will be spoilers)
The book starts out with the lone male defending his breeding territory:
"The arctic summer will be short and there will be much to do when the female came."
His instincts tell him that a female will come and he must be prepared even though he hasn't seen a member of his own kind for five years, three of which he has maintained his breeding territory. Yet, he continues to defend and prepare it until the summer ends and his hormones begin to prepare him for migration. Alas, breeding season has ended with no mate and he must begin his long journey south to Argentina. He joins up with some American golden plovers and flies off to the eastern shores to load up on berries for the long trip. Then, they fly off and encounter a storm where some of the plovers die. Finally, they rest in the northern part of South America before the curlew continues on, alone, to Argentina.
He has no luck finding a mate in Argentina, and begins to work his way north again when a female finds him:
"He had never seen a member of his own species before. Probably the female hadn't either. Both had searched two continents without consciously knowing what to look for."
They begin their courtship, beginning with a food offering by the male to the female. Then, they continue their migration north. But, instead of staying with the plovers, they kept to themselves and kept each other company. As the months went on, they continued courting without mating until one day, the stopped on a farm in Canada only a few hours flight from the male's breeding territory. It was there and then that the female accepted his offer to mate. But, there was trouble around them that they were unaware of:
"He saw the man leap down from the tractor seat and run toward a fence where his jacket hung. Normally, at this, even the curlews would have taken wing in alarm, but now the female accepted the courtship feeding and her wings still quivered in the paroxysm of mating passion. She crouched submissively for the copulation and in the ecstasy of the mating, they were blind to everything around them."
Just then, the female was shot by the farmer, but she didn't die right away, nor did she take flight. The male called for her frantically, putting himself in the line of fire, getting some of his wing feathers shot off. They both flew away quite a distance. They were getting closer to home, but the female began to falter. He began to call after her, trying to encourage her to go further.
"Her flight became slower and clumsy. One wing was beating awkwardly and kept throwing her off balance. The soft, buffy feathers of the breast under the wing were turning black and wet. She started calling to him again, not the loud calls of alarm, but the soft, throaty quirking of the love display. Then, she dropped suddenly. Her wings kept fluttering weakly, it was similar to the quivering of the mating moment, and her body twisted over and over until it was embedded into the damp earth below. . .
"A long time later he (the male) overcame his fear and landed on the ground close to her. He preened her wing feathers softly with his bill. . . Finally, he slept close beside her."
In the morning, he did his courtship song and offered her food, to which she didn't respond. He pleaded for her to follow him, but when she didn't move, he couldn't resist finishing his migration and returning to his nesting spot.
"The arctic summer would be short. The territory must be held in readiness for the female his instinct would tell him soon would come."
Artwork for this module is John Audubon's artwork from Wikimedia.
Eskimo Curlew Pair
By John Audubon
This painting is of a male and female and shows the difference between the bottom and top coloration. It's the only painting Audubon did that showed a dead bird. This painting seems to symbolize the entire story. Perhaps it inspired Fred Bodsworth?
Currently, this poster only comes in the 11 x 17 inch size.
Last of the Curlews
Specifics of the book
Style, number of pages, etc
The book is generally 110-140 pages long depending on what edition you buy. My particular copy, the 1995 paperback edition from Counterpoint Publications, depicted in the intro photo to this lens, was 174 pages. It included a forward and two afterwords that included history of the species, a word from the author, and a list of recent sightings up to the 1990s. It was sparsely illustrated by Abigail Rorer after the original drawings of T. M. Shortt.
While I think Ms. Rorer did a great job with reproducing the images, I would highly recommend getting a book with the original drawings of T.M. Shortt. Those editions have two to three times the illustrations as the copy I have and they're done more like pencil drawings rather than the pen and ink-looking drawings I have in my copy. Usually the earlier editions have the Shortt drawings. You can view a copy of an edition with the Shortt drawings at Open Library where it can be checked out for two weeks
In between the chapters, there are short passages of interesting information about the species in the form of a fake scientific publication. This is helpful in learning more about the species in general and breaks up the story somewhat.
Generally, this book is recommended for children in the 7th grade or older. I would recommend it to advanced readers beginning at about age 10 (5th grade) who can handle the emotion of this book. The book is fairly easy to read, but some of the information may be upsetting or hard to comprehend for many young readers.
Artwork on this module is from Wikimedia Commons.
Last of the Curlews Early Hardcover Edition
Here is a link to where you can find the original hardcover edition (or at least one of the early editions) with the original drawings. You may have to settle for a used copy in less than perfect condition. First editions of this book are very valuable and are considered collectible in good to excellent condition and may be costly if available.
I own a copy of this edition and if you want the MAXIMUM number of original illustrations, this is the book for you. Later editions seem to have fewer illustrations than these earlier ones. I have a copy in good condition and it's joy to own and read with many illustrations that are not included in the Open Library copy.
Be sure to ask the seller lots of questions and make sure the jacket and all the pages are in the book. Just about every page has a drawing on it and to be missing a few pages would be missing a lot.
Last of the Curlews--Play
This was one of three stories done by Feral Theater as part of their play Triptych. Though the story is taken from the book, certain liberties were taken to make this an original production with music, props and graphics. It is 26 minutes long and very unique.
This live theater production was presented as a part of a TED talk and used puppets and a band to present the story. Very unusual and unique.
Last of the Curlews Apollo Edition
This edition is one of the first ones in paperback. Personally, I like this cover because I feel it tells the story about the two curlews trying to find each other.
RIP Fred Bodsworth
Fred Bodsworth, the author of Last of the Curlews, passed away in his home on September 15th, 2012. He would have been 94 a month later. Bodsworth was always fascinated with nature and began his journey studying insects and birds as a young boy. Like Last of the Curlews, his other works focused on nature and nature preservation. Titles include Sparrow's Fall and The Strange One, the Atonement of Ashley Morden, among others, all centered around Canadian wildlife and the people involved.
The Last Curlew Calls to His Ancestors - Inspired by the book, Last of the Curlews
I was inspired by the book to do this acrylic painting of an Eskimo Curlew. I have a copy of the painting for sale as a journal through Cafe Press.
Last of the Curlews 2nd Hardcover edition
Here is a link to the second, 1957, printing of Last of the Curlews. This edition is difficult to get. Be sure to get one with the dust jacket on.
Last of the Curlews Movie
Unfortunately, the YouTube videos are no longer available and have been taken off of YouTube, so I no longer can post snippets. However, some excellent news! Warner Brothers is currently selling a bundled DVD set that includes the Last of the Curlews Movie!
Click HERE to buy the movie!
Differences between the movie and the book
There are actually very few differences between the movie and the book, but those few differences heightened the emotion of the story. Here are some of the differences.
- There is an addition of two characters, a man and his son hunting. The man is a hunter who seems to be ignorant about birds and nature in general. He insists that the lone curlew they see flying is just lagging behind and there's nothing to worry about. His son, however, is very concerned about the bird and nature in general. He doesn't seem really thrilled to be hunting unlike his father.
- The music is very powerful and adds more emotion. The songs will be addressed in the next module.
- The female bird doesn't die when she lands on the ground, but actually survives the night. When the man and his son are seen hunting again, the son accidentally flushes the two birds and even the female tries to fly off, only to drop dead right near the son.
- The story suddenly ends with the statement: "There were once many thousands of Eskimo curlews. Then, there were two, now there is one, soon there'll be none". Nowhere in the book does it ever say that this is a story about the last two Eskimo curlews in existence. It was more about how there are so few of them left that males and females may not be able to find each other and keep the population going. After that statement, a very melancholy song began.
Last of the Curlews Songs
Unfortunately, the ending song, which some say is very powerful, is cut off. There is another, rather fun song that turns melancholy at the end about 2/3 into the movie. Because song lyrics are copyrighted, I can't post the lyrics to it here, though I do know them. Even posting small snippets of the songs may not be a good idea, even for review purposes. I have asked for permission to post them in full, but have not received a response. It is unlikely that I will be able to do so or will only be able to do so if I pay a large fee. So, I am only posting a brief description of the most memorable parts without posting the lyrics.
If you watch all five parts of the Last of the Curlews, listen for the song about 2/3 of the way into the movie. It stars out with a happy tune about how things used to be and how everyone was happy and carefree, finding curlew mates and feeling like they could do anything together.
The ending part of that song is really sad for me. It talked about how he had a mate and that mate was his for only a short time. Every time he remembers his time with her it brings him happy memories.
The ending song is very powerful, especially if you have seen the entire movie. It began:
On Golden Wings. . .
Unfortunately, unless you know somene who has a recorded version of the entire show from beginning to end, you will never hear the rest of the lyrics which are about how life is like a dream and only temporary and how they enjoyed each other's company even though it was only for a blink of an eye. It doesn't look like these songs will ever be available again, which is a great loss.
Reaction to the movie
There was a lot of hype surrounding this very first After School Special and many kids and parents were encouraged to watch it. I was actually too young to remember seeing it. I believe it was aired near the middle of the week at around 4PM and was one of the very few specials to be animated. ABC sent out press materials to be used in the classroom and many teachers prepared the children by talking about birds, bird migration or the Eskimo curlew itself. Older kids were, most likely, given the book to read, which may have prepared them, emotionally, for the show.
After the show was over, many kids remember being totally traumatized, some stayed home sick the next day and some reported crying for a week. I remember one person saying that when their parents came home, they thought someone died because the kids were in such a sad mood. As an adult, seeing this show has really affected me as well, especially the last statement in the movie (I already knew that the female died and it was still horrible!). Though I've read one person who said he wouldn't inflict this show on his worst childhood bully, I don't think it was that bad. I think most of the children who remember it being so sad were children under the age of 10. Many people remember this show very fondly, the music, the story, etc.
I think part of the problem is that many parents may have thought this was going to be a cute, yet educational, cartoon about a bird trying to find a mate and a struggling species, so they let their very young children watch. Indeed, that's how it started. The other birds, the curlew and the plovers were very endearing as they traveled and ate together. However, I think many parents and children were unaware that the ending was so dire. Unlike most children's shows, instead of saying "and they lived happily ever after" with everything resolved and rosy, it said, basically, "this will not get better, it will get worse." Since this was the first special of its kind, no one knew that these shows were often controversial until after a few seasons.
Last of the Curlews TV Special Turned 40 in 2012!
Thank you Warner Brothers for re-releasing it!
I don't know if you wrote to them or not, but they re-released Last of the Curlews in late 2015! If you were one of the ones who wrote to them, thank you!
In 2012, the Last of the Curlews TV special is turned 40! What does this mean? Not much. However, in my personal opinion, this would be a great time for Warner Brothers, owners of much of Hanna-Barbera's work, to re-release this special so that all can see and hear the wonderful music and story in its entirety. If you agree, write to Warner Brothers about releasing the work. It would be great if it was re-released for this anniversary even as a limited release or as part of a compilation of the Afterschool Specials series. I think a whole new generation should watch this. I don't think the special has aired anywhere since 1976 as far as I know.
So, have you read this book or seen the special? What did you think?