Surely everyone knows who John James Audubon is innovative painter, Frenchman turned American, pioneer explorer, doting but often absent husband. And surely Richard Rhodes is one of those authors who needs no introduction. Even if you have never read his work, you've encountered his name and his many prize-winning books The Making of the Atomic Bomb, The Inland Ground and A Hole in the World.

So the two names on the cover of John James Audubon: The Making of an American, are something of a narrative dream team: magnificent historical adventurer meets seasoned and polished biographer. This book lives up to its promise: Rhodes has written what reads like an irresistible historical novel that happens to be true.

Audubon immigrated to the New World in 1803, at the age of 18. He faced all the terrors of the age: rampant diseases with no cures, unmapped and dangerous wilderness, a shaky economy in which banks could call in loans destroying their customers. With talent, chutzpah and passion, he triumphed over everything and became the single most famous name in ornithology not to mention art. Even with cameras and binoculars to back them up, contemporary painters can't surpass Audubon's sheer talent for drawing and painting.

The advance promotion for Rhodes's book claims that it is the first major biography of Audubon in 40 years. This needlessly dismisses Shirley Streshinsky's strong (if admittedly lesser) biography of a decade or so ago, and Alice Ford's of the late 1980s. But this new book is unquestionably the best written and the most vivid and compelling to take up the story of this talented and original man.

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