Audubon: On the Wings of the World

Written by Fabien Grolleau Jérémie Royer
Review by Ann Pedtke

In 1820, John James Audubon—an illegitimate child born in Haiti and sent away to live with relations in America—had failed at almost everything he’d tried. Facing bankruptcy and debtors’ prison after another disastrous business venture, Audubon decided to set out on a quest across North America to pursue his true passion: painting birds. The trip resulted in the collection of paintings that became Audubon’s celebrated Birds of America. His journey, and the breathtaking abundance of life he found across the as-yet-unexploited continent, is beautifully captured by Grolleau & Royer in graphic novel form.

Audubon’s all-consuming passion for birds is the through line of the narrative—sometimes humorous, sometimes mystical, but always perfectly in character. Early in the narrative, as his wife is about to reveal that she is pregnant, Audubon suddenly hears an unfamiliar bird call and darts off to find the source, cutting her off midsentence, to her great exasperation. But as the narrative progresses, his obsession, mocked by many around him, takes on a more transcendent quality. While traveling the Mississippi, Audubon’s boat is wrecked in a storm—a reality he ignores as he wades awestruck out of the wreckage to admire the hundreds of herons, egrets, and ibises gathered on the shoreline. The text and visual narrative magnify this epiphany in unison, as the protesting voices of his companions become smaller and smaller and the field of vision is taken over by an abundance of wild winged things. In thrall to the glory of nature, Audubon finally finds perspective on his own life.

Grolleau & Royer have created a beautiful tribute to one of America’s first voices for conservation. For any student of history or lover of the natural world, setting aside an hour or two to experience this book will be well worth the time.