Black Nell:
The Adventures of a Coyote

by Shirley Woods, Celia Godkin,
96 pages,
ISBN: 0888993196

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Children`s Books
by Allison Sutherland

Fiction with animal protagonists runs a considerable gamut between anthropomorphism and rigorous, almost scientific, exploration of the world as experienced through an animal's senses and psychology. Beatrix Potter exemplifies the former, Ernest Thompson Seton the latter.

This account of the first year of a coyote in southern Ontario opts for the Seton end of the scale, and generally is a worthy effort. Shirley Woods has done his research. A map at the beginning of the book shows the coyote range in North America (they are everywhere!) although it is too large-scale to follow Nell's travels in any detail-a pity, because Woods seems to have worked out locales with conscientious care. Domestic life in the den is accurately depicted, diet and hunting techniques are fine, relationships between coyotes seem right, landscapes and weather are adequately described.

It's great to have children's novels with illustrations throughout the text. Like the writing, Celia Godkin's efforts are commendable. She really has read what she is illustrating, and it is satisfying to see, for example, the correct notch in Nell's ear in the final drawing. But, like the writing, the art doesn't move beyond the ordinary into communicating essential coyoteness.

Realistic animal fiction can be utterly riveting in the hands of someone who has the science-fiction writer's ability to get inside the head of an alien life form. How does the world seem to a creature whose sense of smell is exponentially greater than ours? What is it like being able to run with four-legged swiftness and endurance? To live constantly on the knife-edge of terror about human beings? What is it like experiencing the urgency of hunger and the constant danger of starvation? Or the glory of satiation after a kill? Lacking the necessary heightening and deepening and enrichment, Black Nell never reaches that intensity.

There was one scene that didn't ring true. Two coyotes are watching a trapper remove his catch from a snare, and they disapprove: "He was a killer." Surely killing is something coyotes find fairly easy to accept? Or even admirable? So long as it isn't the coyote who's going under, of course. 

A. S.


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