Jean Craighead George wrote the essence of her latest book, “Shadow: The Cougar of Flat Creek,” practically overnight.
Her nephew Charlie Craighead, a local filmmaker and writer, was visiting his aunt at her home in New York when she asked him what she could to do help mountain lions.
“She didn’t want to just give money,” he said. “She wanted to participate somehow. So I said, ‘Write a story and we’ll figure out a way to make that somehow benefit cougars.’”
The suggestion was just a passing thought, Craighead said, and he didn’t think much more about it.
His aunt used to get up at “a ridiculous hour,” he said, sometimes as early as 5 a.m. She’d “turn on her radio and start rattling pots and pans and make sure nobody got to sleep in.
“I got up the night after I mentioned that idea and went downstairs,” he said. “She came up to me and said, ‘How does this sound?’ and she handed me the manuscript for ‘Shadow.’”
Quickly putting pen to paper, he said, wasn’t uncommon for Craighead George, an award-winning author of more than 100 fiction and nonfiction books. He remembered her as a “force” and a personal inspiration for him.
“She was a very fast and prolific writer once she jumped on things,” he said. “She always called herself the ‘Queen of the Rewrites.’ She didn’t hesitate to get the story down first and then work on it until it was right. But ‘Shadow’ is pretty much the way she wrote it that first draft.”
In 2012 Craighead George died just four days after completing the final draft of “Shadow.” She was 92 years old, and the children’s book was the last thing she was working on before she died.
In the book her son Twig George is quoted as saying this is what his mother wanted.
“She used to say she wanted to die, ‘over the letter K,’ working to the end,” he wrote. “She did. She would be delighted that this book turned out so beautifully and her voice carries on.”
The book was published Nov. 1, illustrated by renowned wildlife artist John D. Dawson with an introduction by primatologist, anthropologist and conservationist Jane Goodall.
Craighead George is known for using storytelling to connect children with wildlife, and “Shadow” is no different. In the new book readers of all ages will find Craighead George’s signature lyric prose, vivid descriptions and meticulous research. Like most people she’d never seen a wild cougar, but she was inspired by conversations with prominent nature photographer Tom Mangelsen.
The book tells of a young cougar named Shadow who prowls and wanders the land in search of her own territory after outgrowing the den where her mother raised her. In pages full of color and chunky brushstrokes she slowly learns that humans are not her friends.
As Shadow crisscrosses the land — familiar to Jacksonites as the wooded butte above Flat Creek, the valley filled with sagebrush and the wetlands teeming with life — the reader is introduced to other parts of the regional ecosystem: a badger, a blue grouse, a pack of wolves.
The reader is also introduced to the push and pull of species coexisting with one another. In one passage Craighead George describes Shadow’s interaction with a bull moose.
“She backed off,” Craighead George writes. “He could kill her with a strike of his hooves. She could kill him with a grip of her jaws. She chose not to. The moose chose not to. Both turned and ran.”
Food, and the need to eat and hunt, is a central piece of Shadow’s story. Roaming among the blue lupines and green grasses, Shadow stalks, and fails to catch, elk. But after snacking on a mallard duck instead and dozing off in an afternoon nap, Shadow comes face to face with a hunter named Tar and his dog, Gunner. She’s treed but manages to get away.
She later comes across a young male cougar, lured to human food. She follows him into civilization, complete with houses and garbage, and watches as he is killed by the same hunter: “The tragic end to a short life,” Craighead George writes.
A crucial backstory in so many human-apex predator conflicts unfolds. The fictitious young cougar’s mother had been shot when he was 6 months old. Never learning to fully hunt, he resorted to garbage. Shadow once again eludes the hunter’s dog and, like her name, slips into the wilderness, untraceable.
An encounter with a grizzly teaches Shadow to move smoothly, staying in the safety of the high mountain forests, drifting away from all other things like “smoke.” Things seem to be looking up until a woodsman recognizes her tooth and claw marks on a kill and calls the hunter.
You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens to Shadow. But parents with young children and nature lovers of all ages, rest assured: There’s a happy ending.
The moral of the story? Jane Goodall says it best in the introduction.
“The lesson Jean makes is that for humans and wild cougars to exist we need to leave them alone,” Goodall writes. “The one thing they need most is space — wild country where they can hunt, hide and play their part in the natural world. I hope this book inspires its readers to help give cougars their wild space and protection from hunting. That’s all they need from us.”
The book, complete with additional sketches and background on the author and her family, has earned praise from the likes of Greg Hudson, the senior designer of Ranger Rick magazine, Ellen Lambeth, the executive editor of Ranger Rick and the National Wildlife Federation, Dan San Souci, a writer and illustrator, and Luan Stauss, the owner of now-closed Laurel Bookstore in Oakland, California.
With “Shadow,” Craighead George leaves behind a storied legacy.
“I write for children,” she once said. “Children are still in love with the wonders of nature, and I am too. So I tell them stories about a boy and a falcon, a girl and an elegant wolf pack, about owls, weasels, foxes, prairie dogs, the alpine tundra, the tropical rain forest. And when the telling is done, I hope they want to protect all the beautiful creatures and places.”
Craighead George earned degrees in English and science from Penn State University before going on to work as a reporter for the International News Service and The Washington Post, where she wrote about the White House.
“Lots of things like that kind of led her away or all of us away from the natural world for a while,” Craighead said. “But we all kind of ended up there; that’s where we were most comfortable. She used to joke that no matter what we tried to do we would always come back around to working with the natural world. We all at one point or another went off in different directions and realized this is where we belonged.”
Her 1972 book, “Julie of the Wolves,” won the Newberry Medal, considered the Pulitzer Prize of children’s books. Her story about a young boy who flees New York City to live in upstate New York, “My Side of the Mountain,” was made into a film.
Craighead and his cousins, including Craighead George’s own children, often found themselves in her books. Craighead was direct inspiration for the book called “Charlie’s Raven.”
“From kids growing up, we always knew of her books and her stories and her career,” he said. “All of us were part of some of her stories and books, so that was always fun. She would always kind of draw on us kids, and especially her own children, as characters.”
In the case of “Shadow,” Craighead and his wife had another role. As Craighead George’s health declined they helped her work through Dawson’s illustrations — many originally created in a journal where he’d kept observations of a captive cougar in Idaho being featured in a documentary— and figured out what could fit into the story.
“It seemed to just all fall together,” he said. “She really liked it. It was a fun project for her, I think, because she didn’t have to go through the contracts and the editors and all that. She could just focus on the story and make it fun and hand it off.”
Whit Press, the book’s publishing agency, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. All its books directly support community service projects, and sales of “Shadow” come full circle to benefit habitat conservation, education and research through the Craighead Foundation.
“It’s not really just about cougars,” Craighead said. “It’s also about Jean and John and Jane and these people who even their rough drafts are important.” ￼