Roger McDonald: Mr. Darwin's Shooter

Roger McDonald
Mr. Darwin's Shooter
Atlantic Monthly Press

"EVOLUTION IS A controversial theory some scientists present as scientific explanation for the origin of living things." This, the New York Times reports, is the disclaimer carried in Alabama biology textbooks, as mandated by the Alabama State Board of Education. While the flora and fauna of the world have evolved in the century since Darwin wrote Origin of the Species, Alabama, apparently, has tried resolutely to remain unchanged.

Mr. Darwin's Shooter, the new novel by Australian author Roger McDonald, visits the origins of this debate by focusing not on Darwin but on the man who shined his boots and hauled his luggage. From 1831 to 1836, during his famed voyage around the world on the H.M.S. Beagle, Darwin was accompanied and assisted by an industrious and fierce young manservant named Syms Covington. Covington's historical record is piddling: a contested birthdate, a few watercolors, a scrappy diary, and a handful of mentions in Darwin's correspondence. Yet his services to Darwin, as shooter, specimen collector, note taker, and general fetch-it man, were inestimable.

In Charles Darwin: Voyaging, the 1995 biography of the scientist, the author Janet Brown called Covington an "essential adjunct to Darwin's scientific work--the unacknowledged shadow behind every triumph." By reimagining this mysterious presence at the side of one of the most important scientists of all time, McDonald has created a dense, remarkably complex character and a life fascinatingly caught between faith and science. The son of a poor horse butcher in Bedford, England, Covington flees the misery of country life at the age of 12 by going to sea with a Congregationalist preacher/sailor named John Phipps. Bedford is remembered in history books as the seat of English religious exceptionalism, and McDonald makes much of the fact that the young Covington is an avid reader of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the allegorical tale of the journey to salvation. Faith and adventure are kin, Covington believes: Deepening the former involves indulging the latter.

It is during his second voyage at sea, on the H.M.S. Beagle, that Covington meets what McDonald describes as "a wealthy young gent...a Mr. Darwin of Derbyshire, twenty-three years old, a bug catcher and very close to the captain in all his dealings." Fresh off the Ph.D. track, Darwin has been appointed the ship's resident naturalist and requires someone to assist him with gentlemanly needs. Not long after Covington is enlisted for the job, Darwin begins to notice that the teen's outstanding industriousness and dexterity could be put to additional use. And so he teaches Covington how to use a rifle, deplume birds, collect fossil and rock specimens, sort specimens by family, label them, and take notes on them. By the end of the five-year journey, his hearing so damaged from shooting that he's become nearly deaf, Covington is more collaborator than manservant.

Still, his relationship with the shadowy, taciturn Darwin remains a distant one--both because of the pair's inherent class differences and the strange new discoveries Darwin is making. Covington is too bright not to notice that Darwin's new theory of origins precludes divine creation, and he struggles to reconcile his faith with scientific fact. Most frightening of all to him is the notion that he has played a part in opening a Pandora's box, that he has become an "accomplice to a great murder."

Throughout the book, McDonald flashes forward to the late 1850s and early 1860s in southeast Australia, where the married, ailing, and still distraught Covington is anticipating the arrival of the Great Book in the mail. Being a silent witness has corroded him like a strong acid and forced him to ask a question he never needed to ask before: "Where is God?" Though McDonald never suggests as much, perhaps the deity is hiding out in Alabama.

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