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by Ken Ingham

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Book Review

The Song of the Cardinal by Gene Stratton-Porter

Anthropomorphus extremis is a phrase that might capture the dominant feature of this book about a fictional Cardinal, a superbird who is bigger and redder and sings louder and more beautifully than any other Cardinal in the world. Moreover, it sings with such clarity that the literal meaning of its songs can be interpreted by human beings, primarily an old farmer and his wife who own the farm on which this bird resides. The gist of its message is most efficiently transmitted by the five chapter titles:

I. Good Cheer! Good Cheer!
II. Wet Year! Wet Year!
III. Come Here! Come Here!
IV. So dear! So dear!
V. See Here! See Here!

“The Cardinal”, as the main character is referred to throughout, was hatched from an abnormally large egg in a thicket of sweet briar and blackberry in Limberlost Swamp near Geneva, Indiana where the author grew up. A precocious prodigy and peerless adventurer, the Cardinal leaves his birthplace in the swamp to explore the surrounding area. He discovers the Oubache (now Wabash) river, a long shining creeping river fringed with willows, giant sycamores, maple, tulip and elm. The reflection of his own beautiful image in the shining surface further expands his already formidable ego. Come first frost, he migrates to an orange orchard near the Everglades where he is adopted by an old man and little girl who come often to the orchard and are enamored by his singing. Good Cheer! Good Cheer! Spring returns him to the shining river where the sap was flowing and leafless trees were covered with swelling buds. Delicate mosses were creeping over every stick of decaying timber. The lichens on stone and fence were freshly painted in unending shades of gray and green, myriads of flowers and vines were springing up . . . There he finds himself attracted to an old stag Sumac tree where he takes up perch and begins his search for a mate.

All day he bathed, dressed his feathers, sunned himself, fluffed and flirted fought off intruders, and most of all, fantasized about how his mate will be captured by his size and beauty. From the top of his Sumac he sings loud and clear, attracting the attention of Abram, an aging pious farmer who may have been modeled after the author’s father, an ordained minister and self-taught naturalist. Abram interprets the Cardinal’s song as “Wet Year! Wet Year!” and thus intensifies his plowing. During his preparation for planting, Abram talks to the bird at length, waxing eloquent in his description of life along the Wabash and promises to defend the bird. Nine out o’ ten men ‘long the river . . . wants to test his aim and you’re the brightest thing on the river bank for a mark. Well, if you’ll stay right where you are, it ‘ull be a sorry day fo any cuss ‘at teches you; at I’ll promise you Mr. Redbird. He offers a few shavings of corn to entice the Cardinal to stay.

Meanwhile the Cardinal is increasingly frustrated by his failure in the courting arena. “Come Here! Come Here!” he sings and listens, sings and listens, repeatedly. He hears all the sounds of nature but the one for which his ears are primed. He can’t understand how the females can resist him. He had expected to reject many applicants before selecting one that would match his own charms. He becomes bitterly jealous of other birds, a plain brown thrush for example, who after singing for only an hour is confronted with a choice of six admiring females. In desperation he falls in love with the only candidate that emerges, a poor underdeveloped and disheveled female who could barely fly before she heard his inspiring song. She leads him on a merry chase. Eventually, after too many pages worth of tender kisses and caresses she was enticed to the Sumac where she finally succumbed to his advances in full view of the farmer Abram and his wife Maria whose marriage was thereby rejuvenated.

With the Cardinal’s loving assistance, the new mate went about building a nest. Inevitably the eggs appeared. Every morning the Cardinal perched on the edge of the nest and gazed in songless wonder at each beautiful new egg. She nestled them against her warm breast and turned her adoring eyes toward the Cardinal. He brought her food and sang yet another meaningful song full of tenderness, melting with love, liquid with sweetness. The farmer leaned on his corn planter, listened intently to the new tune and declared I swanny! If he hasn’t changed his song again, an’ this time I’m blest if I can tell what he’s saying! . . . . Maria, have you been noticin’ the redbird of late? The next day, Maria, with shining eyes and flushed cheeks . . . threw her arms around his neck . . . and cried ‘Oh Abram! I got it! I got it! I know what he’s saying! . . . To me so dear! So dear! and the Cardinal echoed, “So dear! So dear!

The farmer was transported by this experience. There grew in his tender old heart a welling sympathy for every bird that homed on his farm. His devotion became a wild mania. He placed signs around the perimeter declaring boldly - NO HUNTING ALLOWED ON THIS FARM. Laws against killing songbirds apparently had been passed but they were being ignored and Abram was now determined to enforce them at least on his own property.

In the final chapter, while his mate had left the nest to drink and bathe, the Cardinal was puzzled by a faint chipping noise which after considerably searching and bafflement he identified as the cries of the babies still encased in their shells. With a wild scream he made a flying leap through the air . . . his heart beating to suffocation . . . flashed to the top of the tallest tulip tree and cried . . . See Here! See Here! . . . so delirious with joy that he forgot his habitual aloofness and fraternized with every bird beside the shining river. Then he returned to the Sumac and caressed his mate so boisterously she gazed at him severely and gave his wing a savage pull to recall him to his sober senses.

Later that afternoon Abram was following his horse Nancy behind the plow in a field near the Sumac when a young hunter with gun appeared walking towards him. Abram stopped the hunter who said that he was only passing through on his way to the farm of a friend. I have no intention of interfering with your precious birds, I assure you, said the hunter. But as he passed near the Sumac in the distance, Abram noticed a puff of smoke and heard a screaming echo rolling and reverberating down the Wabash. With a bound he disengaged the horse from the plow, leaped on its back and raced toward the Sumac. Fortunately the hunter had missed his mark, which saved him from being physically assaulted by the angry old farmer but did not exempt him from a rambling diatribe in which Abram severely chastised the young hunter for lying and lectured him at length about the immorality of killing birds. Who gave you rights to go ‘round takin’ such beauty an’ joy out of the world? . . . . God never made anything prettier ‘an that bird an’ He must a-been mighty proud o’ the job. . . . jest a master at king’s English! Talk plain as you can! . . . little hen comes along an it was like an organ playin’ prayers to hear him tell her how he loved her . . . . . Worshipin’ that bird’s a kind o’ religion with me . . . .

The hunters conversion was unequivocal - he left his gun with Abram and walked away. The Cardinal and his mate raised two more broods that season. The story ends as the first frost strips the leaves from the antlers of the stag Sumac, with the entire “family” preparing to leave for the orchard in Florida, presumably for a rendevous with the old man and little girl.

This was Gene Stratton-Porter’s first book and serves as a delightful introduction to the more than twenty others that she ultimately published along with numerous stories and articles in magazines. She was one of the best selling authors ever and her novels have never gone out of print. The Song of the Cardinal is the most sentimental and anthropomorphic of all of her works. In subsequent works, only human characters are personified, especially young ones. The present book seems to be aimed at adults although its tone and intellectual level is more like that of a child’s book. According to the film "Voice of Limberlost" it is based on a true experience in which the author finds a dead Cardinal “shot by some fiend with a gun simply to test his aim.” She picked up the bird and carried it home, formulating the story along the way. The book reveals the strength of her feelings toward nature and invokes religion as the main source of moral authority. The book is clearly intended to influence the behavior and attitudes of hunters and marksmen toward wild things especially birds and to invoke the fear of God into any reader who would willingly harm them.

The strengths of this book are that nature is presented in an endearing way that might sensitize people on an emotional level to the need to preserve it. It calls attention to the moral dimensions of man’s impact on nature. On the negative side, the anthropomorphism and sentimentality is so overdone that it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction; I don’t feel that I learned much natural history from reading this book. Yet, from watching the film and from the auxiliary reading that I did, I am left with the definite impression that I could learn a lot from reading some of her other works and enjoy myself in the process. "Freckles" is next on my list.