Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book Review: Call of the Mild [2012]

When Call of the Mild, by Lily Raff McCaulou, came up in my first Reading Roulette draw, I couldn't remember what had prompted me to put it on my To Be Read list in the first place. It's the account of an East Coast reporter in her early twenties who takes a job in Oregon and, after dipping some toes in the water via fly fishing, begins to hunt game.

I am not a hunter. I've never been hunting. In fact, I'm a vegetarian. I'm not really cool with killing things in order to eat them, although I know that the production of my tofu and so forth probably comes at the cost of some animal lives (see Michael Pollan, repeatedly quoted in Call of the Mild). Nevertheless, I approached this book as something that might broaden my horizons--both in terms of what I usually read, and the subject matter.

In addition to providing sometimes humorous descriptions of her first encounters with hunting and guns, McCaulou frequently describes her struggles with the ethics of hunting. Her thesis is encapsulated by these passages:
The chase fosters a special relationship, a direct connection between predator and prey. Yet that closeness does not infringe upon the predator's willingness to eat the prey. Instead, killing and eating the prey becomes an expression of that relationship's specialness. (207)
Animals die whether we acknowledge them or not, whether we eat them or not, whether we participate in their deaths willfully or indirectly. To me, hunting my own meat feels like saying grace before a meal and really, for the first time in my life, meaning it. (209) 
Whether you agree with this justification/explanation, her stories and tidbits were interesting enough to get me through the book. McCaulou never seems completely comfortable with her identity as hunter, no matter how much she works to understand it. Some of her assertions were downright troubling:
As a conservationist, it pains me to think of someone pulling the trigger on a rare tiger. But if the astronomical price tag for hunting one tiger raises enough money to protect hundreds of them, isn't that doing more good than harm? (172)
I don't agree with the idea of sacrificing one for the good of the many, nor am I fully on board with "In a sense, hunting is a final frontier of feminism. As women make up a growing percentage of American hunters, we quietly lay claim to a party of humanity that has been dominated by men" (239). Still, this book does provide a lot of food for thought, and maybe McCaulou's continuing internal conflict over the act of taking animals' lives is what makes her a good hunter. Guilt is a continuous thread through the book, yet it doesn't dissuade her from continuing on her path--from rabbits to pheasant to larger birds and finally big game.

Grade: B-

It's not you, it's me. When it comes down to it, I just don't care that much about hunting, although McCaulou does make a compelling argument for hunting as a way of better understanding the natural world--and that hunters ought to be the staunchest of environmentalists. McCaulou's narrative of her activities is interspersed with many digressions on related topics and stories about friends and acquaintances, sometimes feeling like a series of essays rather than a cohesive whole. But I'm glad I read it, even though I never would have gotten through it if not for this project.

My favorite part of this book was completely unintentional. In a passage on cross-country skiing, she describes what she does to keep herself entertained during the seemingly repetitive exercise:
Once I get too tired to be anything but practical, I make mental lists of articles I want to write. Next, I compose pneumonic devices to remember my lists. (180)
I'm going to file that typo away for a rainy day laugh.

This is a thing in a lot of states, including MA, where I live: Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW)

Book Review Index

ETA: Now I do remember how this book got on my TBR list--I read a review in the course of collection development, and thought it looked interesting. This is how a lot of books end up on my list.

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