11 October 2010

Fact or fiction--Old Abe, Eagle Hero

I originally intended to write a straight-out review of Old Abe, Eagle Hero but was stymied by the nagging conviction that I could not give it a rave review. And since I have a policy of only reviewing books if I can do so positively, I nearly bailed on this assignment. And yet, I quite liked this book and wanted to write about it. So what's the problem?

The problem is that the book represents itself as a factual account of an actual bird's life, yet it is poorly researched and full of inaccuracies. Or maybe it was meticulously researched and the reader just doesn't know this because there are no references. And maybe the inaccuracies aren't inaccurate at all, but again--no documented sources to back anything up. Do you see my problem?

I was originally intrigued by this book because of its historical context. I also like eagles and am always interested in the stories behind symbols. This book tells the story of Old Abe (who according to Wikipedia was actually a female, although I have not found confirmation of this anywhere else) an eaglet who was found (captured? let's not be euphemistic) by a Native American chief in the Northwoods of Wisconsin in 1861. The eaglet is traded to a man named Dan McCann who eventually sends the eagle off to war in his place. An explanation is offered as to why he does this (he cannot fight himself, and the bird has shown remarkable intelligence,) but that is really immaterial to the heart of the book--Old Abe's heroic exploits with the 8th Regiment of Wisconsin. Old Abe is involved in several major Civil War battles and serves not only as a mascot, but as a spy and is even credited with dragging a wounded soldier to safety. After the war Old Abe goes to live in the Wisconsin State Building as a war hero. A two room apartment is built specially for the bird, where he resides, when he isn't making guest appearances at special events such as the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1876 and a fund raiser to preserve the Old South Church in Boston.
Old Abe him/herself

At which point the book abruptly ends. Which is extremely unfortunate! Because this abrupt ending makes the reader aware of several flaws with the book. The most glaring is the aforementioned lack of source material used to research and write the book. Secondly, an author's note at the end, while providing much commentary about the plight of bald eagles in the United States, fails to provide any further information about Old Abe or help to clarify what part of the story is bona fide fact and what is poetic license.

101st Airborne Division
And yet, as I said, I liked this book. I thought it was written with a sense of drama (at least up to its abrupt ending.) I loved the water color illustrations that managed to portray Old Abe with playfulness when fraternizing with the men of the company, and ferocity when leading them into battle. I liked knowing that Old Abe was well taken care of after the war. I even liked the scavenger hunt the book sent me on. But how much of it was actually real? The Internet is chock full of pictures of Old Abe, who seems to have been a well-documented bird (which makes the lack of references in this book so baffling.) The bird left an incredible visual legacy, immortalized in stone on monuments, illustrated on postcards, and sewn on patches. This book has near-well inspired Old Abe mania in me, and might very well do so for another reader. But is it fair to expect someone to scour for other sources to ensure that what they read in the book is accurate? Well, no.....of course not. So while this book sets out to tell an exciting and inspirational story, it's likely to raise more questions than it will answer. And yet, and yet, and yet.......I thought it was worth reading.

Thank you to Kane/Miller for providing me a copy of the book to review.

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