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Faith McNulty

Writer Faith McNulty, who died last week at 86 at her Tuckertown farm, was a no-nonsense person. Her friends knew it, and her readers knew it. It came across in the brisk, crystalline prose of her New Yorker pieces and the 1980 best seller The Burning Bed; in the crisp, clear language of her children’s books; in her non-fussy attitude about cooking for a small dinner party; in her acceptance of her own foibles; in her blunt, plainspoken way of giving advice; in her finely honed political opinions; and in her non-sentimental view toward the animals she wrote about.

"One thing I have always done is to approach nature subjects seriously — in no way cute, ever," McNulty stressed to this reporter in a 1986 interview. "Nor do I let them get mushy or lyrical."

That attitude informed her wildlife stories for The New Yorker and made her animal stories for children so vivid. McNulty never spared her young readers the harsh realities of survival in nature — a moth drowning in a pool of water meant a good breakfast for a spider — but she wanted to pass on a "humane, compassionate, and personal feeling" about animals, which she hoped might influence future decisions about endangered species.

Thus she published books about whooping cranes, manatees, prairie dogs, ferrets, and whales, but also the lowly spider, snake, mouse, and woodchuck that she found on the farm she bought in the ’50s, returning to that area of South County where she’d spent childhood summers and from which she would post "Talk of the Town" essays to The New Yorker. Though she continued to travel widely for her wildlife writings, McNulty also found inspiration in the outdoors close at home: nursing orphaned animals in her bathroom; adopting dogs and cats from the Animal Rescue League, co-founded by her mother and supported by her own volunteer work; and keeping horses, which she rode almost daily, well into her 70s, with long-time friend Mary Ann Scott. I have warm memories of canoeing and swimming in the Wood River with her.

She once surprised me by saying she didn’t really like to write. Her sister Betsy Kieffer thinks that’s because she worked so hard at getting it right — "she got subsumed by it." Kieffer admired her keen observations about animals and humans, making her conversation as engaging as her writing.

Faith could be both bold and shy, biting and wry. I remember how she’d prod a whole table of us into lively dispute and then make us laugh out loud at a witty turn of phrase. She was a generous friend, with a devilish twinkle in her eye, and a lasting model to me of discipline and personal insight in her writing.

Issue Date: April 22 - 28, 2005
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