Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Book resurfaces, opens window to past
BY PAUL SULLIVAN
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
I CLOSED MY laptop and struggled to make sense of what I had just seen.
I’d been studying a satellite view of St. Petersburg, Fla., where Edna H. Evans worked as a reporter before World War II.
When her first book rolled off the presses in March 1940, she would not have recognized my view of that city.
She wrote a boys’ book, beautifully illustrated with her husband Bill’s photographs. She was a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. He took pictures for the paper.
Her story was fiction, but it was based on Bill’s summer trips to Florida as a boy.
Not only did the couple share an interest in journalism, but also in birds, which they had studied extensively along Florida’s Gulf Coast shore and island keys.
Last week, when I wrote about bird banding, I mentioned my own early interest in birds and how it had been stoked by Edna Evans’ book “Bill and the Bird Bander.”
As much as it meant to me when I had read it—probably about age 6 to 8—this was not classic children’s fare destined to last for generations.
I wrote last week that my own copy of the book had long since disappeared. I regretted that, since the book, along with my mother’s keen interest in all things natural, helped spark my lifelong interest in birds.
But I had a shock in store the day after I turned in last week’s column. Imagine my surprise when my son Patrick called to say he had found that old volume, and it was in pretty good condition!
To understand the significance of this find, it is essential to understand that in our family, books are a passion. We never discard books. We store them, even in places where they might as well have been thrown away. But once in a while, one of these old books returns from the shadowy cubbyholes of our past.
I sat down to reacquaint myself with Edna Evans’ book, which is apparently the first of at least four.
It was and yet was not the same as I remembered it. She did her research and wrote that book in the 1930s. Not only was it during the Great Depression, it was long before a number of major cultural earthquakes shook this country.
Birds, and the study of them, were the subject of Edna Evans first book, but I found that the basics of bird banding have not changed as much as I would have thought. Sure, computers have replaced file cards and other technologies have made the work faster and easier, but the primary tasks are pretty much the same.
The big surprise was cultural. Evans makes casual references to black characters that are quite racist. There’s no other word for it. When she mentions a black man helping Bill’s ornithologist–mentor, for instance, his reply is quoted in dialect.
There wasn’t much material like that in “Bill and the Bird Bander,” but it was there. And it stopped me in my tracks.
As my own, Buena Vista, Va.-born mom, speaking of race relations in her childhood, told me in the 1970s: “We didn’t know any better. It was the way we were raised. And it was wrong.”
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Paul Sullivan of Spotsylvania County, a former reporter with The Free Lance–Star, is a freelance writer. Email him at PBSullivan2@cs.com.