Craig Childs’s book of essays, The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild (Back Bay Books, 2009) opens up horizons that we can imagine, even if we’ve never been in the wilds Childs describes for us. Each of the 37 essays in the collection is a story of an unexpected encounter Childs has had with an animal, sometimes in the depths of the wilderness, sometimes in his own home. Some of the encounters he describes are shot through with fear and danger, with Childs’s behavior a key factor in whether he will survive the encounter; others are serene, meditative moments that leave him pondering the Big Questions we all ask ourselves throughout our lives.
Though there is a clear order to the structure of the book, in his “Author’s Note” Childs encourages readers to skip around at will, to read whichever essay intrigues at the moment rather than reading one after another. After all, he says, “This is how each story came to me: unexpectedly, halting my breath before I could draw it in.”
This is a collection that offers the best of what creative nonfiction can be: stories that capture the essence of a moment, scenes from life that offer a glimpse of something larger than ourselves. It just so happens that Childs’s moments are sewn into a life that is more adventurous than most. There is a bit of unevenness in the collection that isn’t uncommon when essays are drawn from various times in a prolific writer’s long career, but I found that reading an essay here and there rather than going straight through the book mitigated the unevenness. And, as with any collection, there are essays that I enjoyed more than others. Essays that had an environmentalist slant (“Northern Spotted Owl”) distracted me, while the simplest essays (“Broad-Tailed Hummingbird,” “Wasp”) held my imagination long after I’d finished reading.
The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild is a book that will resonate with weekend nature warriors and with armchair adventurers, animal lovers and readers ensconced squarely in the middle of the city. It’s perfect for readers who crave a collection of short essays that can take them out of their busy lives for a little while and offer a different point of view from which to frame the world.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars