three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
47-July-Aug-2010
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A-Anthill.epsHarvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, has been an outspoken advocate for the environment for many years. The author of two dozen works of nonfiction and the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, Wilson, now 80, draws heavily on his own childhood in the Deep South in Anthill, his first novel.

The Story: While searching for a legendary monster in the backwoods of coastal Alabama, sensitive, young Raphael "Raff" Cody stumbles upon ecologist Frederick Norville in the old-growth pine forest surrounding Lake Nokobee--a meeting that alters the course of Raff's life. Under Norville's guidance, the budding naturalist thrives, finding a refuge from his turbulent home life in the woods and, later, in his biological studies at Florida State University, where he completes his senior thesis on the mound-building ants of Nokobee's Dead Owl Cove, "The Anthill Chronicles." But when real estate developers begin to eye Lake Nokobee for a new project, Raff may have to sacrifice his dreams and risk everything to save it.
Norton. 378 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780393071191

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It is obvious early on that this author knows the natural world inside and out, a biologist who writes not only with exactitude and authority but also with grace and conviction. ... His descriptions of antdom are not only expert but also Homeric and profoundly empathic, resulting in the most imaginative yet scientifically authentic rendering of insect life ever written." Donna Seaman

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Presented as Raff's undergraduate thesis, [the section of the novel titled ‘The Anthill Chronicles'] carries the reader down the ant-hole to describe life from the ants' point of view. No writer could do this better, and Wilson's passion serves him best here. His language achieves poetic transcendence when describing ‘the decency of ants,' whose disabled members ‘leave and trouble no more.'" Barbara Kingsolver

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The result is a charming and intriguing novel, elegant especially in a passage on warring ants, but a novel more impressive as advocacy than as artistry, more resonant in its views of nature and humanity than as fiction. ... The passage [in the section of the novel titled ‘The Anthill Chronicles'] reads like a cross of Watership Down and The Lord of the Rings and represents Wilson's finest writing in the novel, so much better than the rest that one wonders why he did not write the entire novel as an allegory." Robert Braile

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"In a novel that sticks close to the familiar concerns of his nonfiction--the culture and landscape of the Deep South, the mysteries and beauty of wilderness, the struggle to preserve biodiversity--he sticks, as well, to the habits of a science writer. ... This is not to say Anthill is without charms. As you might expect, there are graceful, lush descriptions of the Nokobee wild lands, and some of the digressions, especially those having to do with the creatures Raff studies, are irresistibly fascinating." Molly Gloss

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"The book comes to life only during the section called ‘The Anthill Chronicles,' ... it really deserves to stand on its own, without the human narrative that surrounds it." Verlyn Klinkenborg

Critical Summary

While critics unanimously praised Wilson's pioneering scientific work, they had mixed reactions to his debut novel. Wilson captures the carefree bliss of boyhood, and his vivid descriptions of the forest's flora and fauna will transport readers to the wilds of Alabama. The 70 pages comprising "The Anthill Chronicles" feature some of the novel's most eloquent and mesmerizing prose. (A portion of "The Anthill Chronicles" was published in the New Yorker as "Trailhead" and is available at newyorker.com). However, some critics complained that the prominent biologist neglects key elements of fiction, such as characterization and dialogue, and strays too often from his plot. Despite these concerns, Wilson's foray into creative writing allows him to explore the spirituality of nature, and readers open to its ecological message will find Anthill an intriguing and inspiring book.

Also by the Author

A-Naturalist.epsNaturalist (1994): "Most children have a bug period," writes Wilson in his critically acclaimed memoir. "I never grew out of mine." This engaging and entertaining journey from the rural South to the classrooms of Harvard gives readers an extraordinary glimpse of the man behind the scientist whose life's work has been to advance our understanding of ourselves and our place in the natural world.