John James Audubon.
Like Doug, I had my own Audubon epiphany almost 20 years ago, when I went to see an exhibit of his Birds of America at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I had no expectations, just an hour's lunchtime to kill between classes at Simmons. I figured I knew birds. They're everywhere; see them all the time. Well as Doug would say, I was a chump. I stood in front of those paintings, which were much larger than I had anticipated, for one thing, and was blown away by the strength and down-right drama in them. Do you know how that feels? Doug Sweiteck does.
Doug's story is, as the dust jacket says, about "the power of art and story over despair and loss." That sums up the plot pretty well; Doug is the youngest child in a blue-collar family in 1969 small-town New York. His father is an abusive lout, his oldest brother, Lucas, returns from Vietnam a blind amputee, and his other brother, Christopher, is following in the footsteps of the dad. His mother is a beautiful soul, and you wonder how she ever got roped into this existence. Doug has nothing going for him except himself. And, thanks to the local library, (hurrah!) John James Audubon. The library has a copy of the Birds of America, which they display on the top floor--and which the town draws from "like a bank," razoring out prints and selling them each time money is needed or some good doobie merits recognition. It is an act of cultural vandalism which Doug is insightful enough to recognize. As his relationship with the paintings becomes stronger, he resolves to rectify this wrong, just as he is fixing so many other broken things in his life.
The nature of Doug's relationships with the prints is two-fold. As a budding artist, he wants to draw them himself; with the help of one of the librarians he learns how to capture and imitate Audubon's techniques. But just as importantly, Doug learns to read the paintings. And these readings stay with him as he interacts with his family, his classmates, and his neighbors. There is a wonderful "pay it forward" feel to the book, without the piety of the sentiment. A magnificent example of this is in Doug's relationship with his PE teacher, Coach Reed, a man who has spent the better part of the book bullying Doug. At this point Doug is working on copying The Forked-Tailed Petrel.
He has also discovered a notebook of pictures that Coach Reed has drawn of his time in Vietnam; nightmarish images which look like Lucas' dreams sound. With the two petrels in mind, buffeting on the wind moments before their paths cross, Doug sees and seizes an opportunity to help two men--one he loves and one he despises--help each other heal.
The final triumph of the paintings is in Doug's reading of The Arctic Tern, the bird which opens and closes the book (the chapters are named after individual prints.) Despite the tone of the title, which suggests that Doug has settled into an acceptable existence, everything is much better than okay. Not necessarily fixed, but full of promise. And at the center of that promise is Doug, with his artist's heart and his artist's eye, looking for the next spectacular thing that is going to come into his life.