All the characters in local writer Emily Strelow’s first novel, The Wild Birds–or at least all the sympathetic characters–wonder “about spirits and how they inhabit objects.” Farmers and orchardists of various backgrounds and levels of education, living in Oregon, California, and Arizona, they are all animists, even if they don’t call themselves that. For them, the world is vibrant, alive, perhaps even conscious. It talks back to us.
One such vibrant object unites this book and its disparate characters: an ornate Victorian box that contains a collection of birds’ eggs. If that puzzles you, it’s enough to know that collecting birds’ eggs had its passionate cultural moment at the end of the nineteenth century and may have been one of the reasons for the precipitous decline of bird populations at the beginning of the twentieth.
Strelow’s novel moves from the Farallon Islands off the coast of northern California in 1874 to Oregon in 1994. The stories of the people we meet there at first appear to be unrelated; I kept expecting to hear something of biological lineage. But what unites them, finally, is that box and the recognition by one owner that it should be passed to a particular, yet unexpected, person.
In Oregon, Alice has been given the box by her friend, Sal–probably the love of her life, although neither has yet been able to admit that love, even to herself. The two women are almost certainly The Wild Birds of the title. Alice is a single mother in a troubled relationship with her daughter, who was conceived in a rape. Sal, her friend from childhood, is off doing bird surveys in the Arizona desert. Although birds fill this book, Sal is the only birding professional. In their thirties, these two women finally begin to realize that their needs and their desires are centered on each other.
That relationship becomes the focus of this book, the action that brings all the threads of the story together. But Strelow also has done a beautiful job weaving wild birds and descriptions of them all the way through the novel. Here’s a description of a bird in northern California:
Underneath the dark outline of scattered redwoods, a nighthawk sailed through the beam of a loud, buzzing street light outside the town hall, making a loud, sharp “peent” call followed by a low boom. The lower, rasping sound brought to mind a miniature dragon bent on destruction. The bird flew in and out of the light on pointed, brown wings with white illuminated stripes, its silhouetted image flashing on and off in the moonless night like a strobe as it dove in and out of the beam of light.
Nighthawks will have returned to Ann Arbor by the time you read this, and, if you listen at night when you’re downtown, you will hear one of them “peenting” above you. Among its other pleasures, that nighttime call will give you something of the truth of Strelow’s novel.
Strelow reads from The Wild Birds at Literati Bookstore on May 3 and will give an introductory guide to bird-watching there on May 17.