In Seal Pool, Matthiessen's environmental conscience is in the forefront in a story about a Great Auk, a bird thought to have been extinct since 1844, who has taken up residence in New York's Central Park Zoo.
THE STORY STARTS with a framing narrative about Lucas and his sister Sara who is celebrating her fourth birthday with a visit to the Central Park Zoo in New York City. The seals are lazing about instead of giving the proper swimming display Lucas had hoped to show his sister as a birthday present. In fact, all of the animals seem to be asleep or in hiding. As a result, the crowd is thinning. Lucas and Sara are about to leave too when they meet Dr. Frederick Fluke.
On his right shoulder perched a blue Pigeon and on his left a gray one, and a white Pigeon balanced itself with little flutters on his slouchy hat. So many other Pigeons flew around his head that sometimes it was hard to see his face at all...Dr. Frederick Fluke knows why the animals are on strike. He offers to tell the two children over ice cream sundaes, which they accept. (More innocent times, I guess.) It turns out Dr. Fluke can talk to animals. ("'Do you really talk to animals?' Lucas said...still suspicious but not wishing to be rude...") Dr. Fluke begins.
The Great Auk was a flightless sea bird that lived in Northern Oceans and has been extinct since 1844. However, the previous month he was at the docks and saw a parcel of crates marked "Bronx Zoo," one of which was labeled "Red-Eyed Hoozis." But it wasn't a Hoozis, it was "A real honest-to-goodness Great Auk, lying on his back with his flippers behind his head!"
In his excitement, the good doctor sits on the Snowy Owl's crate, who then exposes him to all of the animal as "a spy in our midst!"
What follows is a long humorous debate between the animals (the Auk, the Owl, a Polar Bear, a Ptarmigan, an Arctic Hare, an Ivory Gull, a Blue Fox, and a Lemming) and Dr. Fluke, which reads like the Mad Tea Party in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Dr. Fluke decides he must save the Great Auk.
If this Auk was discovered, every museum in the world would send an expedition into the Arctic to find others like him. And even if they meant well, the disturbance might mean the end of the Great Auks.When Dr. Fluke tells the animals his plan (to simply hide the Auk in his coat and then release him off of Staten Island), they are skeptical. They point out many of the different kinds of birds that are extinct as a result of humans. After all, "'Man is the only animal who does not know exactly what he wants,' the Owl observed, 'which is why he causes so much trouble.'"
The conversation devolves into mere bickering as each animal threatens to eat the other, a perhaps more honest interaction than most discussions between people. Eventually a truck driver from the Bronx Zoo arrives for the delivery. Dr. Fluke talks his way onto the truck. When the truck stops at a traffic light, Dr. Fluke escapes with the Great Auk. They are chased through Central Park, first by the driver, then police, and worst of all an old woman with a surprising amount of ornithological knowledge ("'That's a Great Auk.'").
Dr. Fluke talks his way out of this last encounter by threatening to report the old woman as a crazy person, because someone who thinks she sees extinct animals must be crazy. He finds his way into the Central Park Zoo and just as what has become a crowd of pursuers is upon him, he slips the Auk into the seal pool. There, the other zoo animals enable him to eat unobserved by driving off the crowds of zoogoers by being terribly boring.
The story ends just as a squirrel informs Dr. Fluke that the seals will swim now, fulfilling Lucas's wish to show his sister the seals on her birthday.
FOR A BOOK WITH such an obvious message (prevent animal extinction) it manages to never preach. This might be because the dialogue moves so quickly and it's all so funny. ("'If it weren't for all this eating, Lemmus trimucronatus [lemmings] would rule the earth!'") There are Shakespearean allusions ("'alas, poor Curlew,' sobbed the Ptarmigan. 'I knew him well...'"), playful sarcasm ("'I mean, it never occurred to me that anyone who sees a Great Auk these days must be off their coconut.' He peered at me very queerly with his bright red eye."), and William Pène du Bois's beautiful illustrations throughout. Perhaps the reason that Seal Pool has disappeared (Matthiessen doesn't even include it in his "Also by Peter Matthiessen" list at the beginning of Shadow Country) is because its a little too simplistic for adults, but a little too adult in its humor for children. Or maybe it's just the rather drab title. But then, the British edition didn't seem to help its legacy, and its title has plenty of intrigue.
For all of William Pène du Bois's illustrations for Seal Pool see my Flickr set here.
All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders. The cover of the British edition comes from Page Books list of books by William Pène du Bois.