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20 october 2018

I didn't grow up with Holling C. Holling's large-scale picture books, though they were hardly antiques when I was young, and Holling himself lived on till I was in high school. But by the 1960s, books like Seabird, full of optimism about Yankee know-how and the indomitable spirit of the white American male, already seemed passé.

I only learned of Holling's existence a couple of weeks ago, when I attended a lecture on the ecology of Texas turtles. The presenter mentioned Minn of the Mississippi, Holling's 1951 book about a snapping turtle who swims from Minnesota to Louisiana in the course of his eventful life. Holling's stock-in-trade was books that served both as stories and as guides to geography, technology, and natural science. In some ways they are predecessors of the great Dorling Kindersley series of intricately illustrated books about just about anything.

Seabird is a walrus-ivory model of a gull that passes through the hands of four generations of seagoing men. Carved by great-grandpa Ezra back in the days of Moby Dick, this tchotchke follows Ezra's son Nate onto clipper ships and then comes into the possession of grandson James, who becomes a marine engineer after sail gives way to oil. The book ends with Ezra (now an unlikely hundred-and-five) and James' son Ken holding Seabird and watching an airplane zoom past.

Technology has no downside in Holling's world. Pollution is unknown. Whales are just something to be wrung into oil. War doesn't figure. Ships don't hit icebergs (in fact Ezra carves Seabird shortly after a real gull warns him about a nearby iceberg). Natives are happy. Growth and progress are inevitable. America will never stop getting bigger and better.

Each two-page spread in Seabird consists of a short story, a lavish color illustration, and numerous black-and-white sketches that demonstrate a technology or a natural process. It's a deliberately busy book, and very well-executed. You can spend a couple of hours even as a 21st-century guy perusing the detail, and I imagine Holling's books were even better at engrossing 20th-century boys.

Women are nearly invisible, though; the only one pictured (Ezra's wife and Nate's mother) might as well be a mannequin, as we see only her clothes, and only the back of her outfit at that (33). There's a hilarious goofy grinning Eskimo (13) who swaps Ezra the ivory with which he will fashion Seabird, and is mighty chuffed to walk away with a little drill (to go with the genuine iron fishhooks and attractive glass beads that he's gotten for several grand worth of pelts).

Yet for all that, I was charmed with the little ivory bird, and apprehensive about Seabird getting lost (which almost happens in one of the stories). I like figurines of animals, and there can't be too many books about them. Seabird may be the classic of the genre.

Holling, Holling Clancy. Seabird. 1948. Boston: Houghton, 1975.