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BOOK REVIEW : Tame as a Novel, Wild as Book on Pumas

December 27, 1990|CHARLES BOWDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The White Puma" is a story in which the hunter becomes the hunted. The puma is white, the big-game guides crude, the rich folks out of shape, and the traders of poached animals evil; the dedicated conservationists have good skin and sensible diets. In the end, the good guys and gals win, the bad folks learn or get a comeuppance.

R. D. Lawrence has written 16 books, traveled the world as a field biologist, and as background research for this novel spent 10 months (three seasons) alone in the Canadian wilds observing one particular cat. This wealth of field notes makes appearances throughout the text.

The plot is simple: Walt Taggert and Steve Cousins are uneducated guides working out of a resort in northern British Columbia and poaching game on the side. In one encounter with a puma, Taggert is spooked by the big cat and accidentally falls into a huge steel trap he has set for the animal, thereby losing his right arm. He becomes a hero with his tales of a killer cat.

Eventually, a white puma turns up in the hundreds of square miles where the two men hunt. After killing the cat's sister and mother (which is, unknown to Taggert, the puma responsible for his severed arm), the two men become bogged down in a war with the animal. The cat twice tries to kill them--once attacking Taggert on horseback, the second time dive-bombing their tent in the night.

Besides selling parts of bears, lions and other animals as love potions in a smuggling operation in the Orient, the two men agree to track and kill the white cat for a $12,000 payment by a rich German hunter. When word of this hunt gets out, a Canadian conservation group headed by Heather Lansing intervenes.

In the end: Heather bonds with the white puma, is accidentally shot by Steve Cousins, converts him to conservationism, and sets up a research project in which Cousins, having sworn off hunting because he now realizes animals can think, becomes the official game warden protecting the cat. And, of course, the cops are told of the poaching/smuggling network and shut it down.

Lawrence's scientific training sometimes pops up in his choice of language--"As he entered the darkened grotto, memory nagged at his cortex"--but more often appears in asides about the biology of pumas, their prey and their habitat. In many ways, this is the most valuable part of the book.

Just as Farley Mowat's "Never Cry Wolf!" educated a mass audience about pack behavior, this novel will teach almost everyone facts they didn't know about an elusive carnivore. There are many kills in the story, and these descriptions are convincing and oddly comforting--a welcome respite from feel-good environmentalism. Of course, as in any novel based on

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This is the book we are almost preconditioned to want to like. I've seen two mountain lions in my life, and those brief encounters still feed and comfort me during various bleak urban days. Pumas show up on T-shirts on city streets as symbols of the wild and the free.

fact, one is always a bit unsure just what is fact and what is invention.

The book reads well for a scientific text on pumas, but stumbles as a novel. The characters are cardboard: Taggert was a sensitive boy who became a killing machine to live up to this dad's expectations; the conservationists seem molded out of some high-fiber substance. The dialogue is stilted, and the plot--well, the plot is a melodrama (not just a puma, but a white puma!).

The denouement of the book rests on the fact that the puma feels good vibes coming off Heather because of the laid-back way she smells, and he can't stand a whiff of the whiskey-drinking, cigarette-smoking guides hunting him with rifles, dogs and an overweight German.

This is the book we are almost preconditioned to want to like. I've seen two mountain lions in my life, and those brief encounters still feed and comfort me during various bleak urban days. Pumas show up on T-shirts on city streets as symbols of the wild and the free.

But as novel, this book never really comes alive, and as an introduction to puma biology, the fact that it is a novel always muddies our understanding. Also, I am skeptical that such a black-and-white view of the world as Lawrence presents here--one in which the hunters of pumas are louts, the defenders of wildlife pure souls, and the puma itself is white, rare and noble--will rally anyone to the cause except the already converted.

To achieve that feat, to capture those who have no particular interest in wild animals or wild country, the author has to seduce the reader with the sheer force of an imagined world, just as an entire nation seemed to succumb to Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Pumas and readers will have to wait for that book.

THE WHITE PUMA by R.D. Lawrence Henry Holt $19.95, 329 pages

Richard Eder is on vacation. Charles Bowden's most recent book is "Red Line" (W. W. Norton).

Next: Elaine Kendall reviews "The Stories of Eva Luna" by Isabel Allende (Atheneum).

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