Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.
Whether hope is for the birds or not, it perhaps springs less eternally than the poet accords. To one of the main characters at the heart of William J. Cobb’s kaleidoscopically rewarding and at times meandering novel The Bird Saviors, an ornithologist in vaguely apocalyptic times monitoring dwindling bird populations decimating and decimated by avian flu, hope takes on a less lyrical attribute. In contrast to blind faith—the reward for which he deems “is blindness”—hope is cast in prosaically down-to-earth terms as a “smaller, more reliable thing” that “you can carry in your pocket. Something you can give to others. Something you can act on.”
Indeed, actions–couched in Cobbs’ expressive and gracefully-worded style and craftsmanship–bespeak volumes in an episodic and vividly-delivered narrative characterized by multiple plotlines and shifting perspectives. Largely forgoing an overarching recounting that may have unified various storyline strands, Cobb situates The Bird Saviors against a near-future, rural Colorado-set backdrop replete with dust-bowl droughts and devastation, viruses, religious fundamentalism, war, climate change, roving and violent marauders, blackouts, and the singled-out killing of “nuisance” birds scapegoated beyond hope–“with feathers” no longer.
Though relationships and subplots of varying effectiveness involve a revolving-door cast of comic relief and earnest characters steeped in such actions and events as murder plots, kidnapping, and truck jacking, the novel would have benefitted from a pared-down focus. The “weight of a threatened world” is most prominently and compellingly seen in the chronicling centered around the lives of an intelligent and inquisitive 17-year-old single mother named Ruby Cole, an ardent but informal quick-study surveillant of local birds; her controlling but ultimately loving father–a fire-and-brimstone preacher Ruby refers to as “Lord God”; and 29-year-old ornithologist Ward Costello, who hires Ruby as an assistant for his field studies in the belief that birds are in part “a sign of things to come.”
Taking on a job and a shot at independence is all part and parcel of Ruby’s eagerness for self-sufficiency and an escape from the orbital pull of her father’s influence. The issue is especially forced when Lord God initially agrees to a plan to marry her off to a wealthy and much older pawn shop owner, a member of a Mormon church spin-off creed who already has two wives yet intends to add Ruby to the mix–by underhanded means if it comes to that.
Which it just might: a dismayed Ruby pursues and persuades her way to a potential out offered in the fortuitous form of a wary Ward and his employment path. However, Ruby wavers as her father wanes in physical and mental health, while at the same time she considers giving sway to the subtle advent of romantic rumblings and emotions emanating from Ward, a widower who lost his wife and child “in the fever.” Ornithology and opportunity knocks for her and her baby, then, but in such a portentous times when, to paraphrase Dylan, “nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts,” is this the option that offers the needed shelter from the storm, a solace-lined and refuge-laced harkening to heed in a desperate and distrustful age?
Cobb, the critically praised author of Goodnight, Texas, doesn’t necessarily tie his deftly-juggled and loose-ended plot points together at the end, but that is entirely in keeping with a novel set in such a chaotic time and place of little closure, continuity, and cohering faith. Importantly, however, though a few concrete incidents and thematic underpinnings become smothered or truncated in dystopian pessimism and deathly gravitas, we glean–from The Bird Saviors‘ minor clutter of subplots and secondary characters—a lingering reassurance, and a complementary and affirming sense of hope rooted in regeneration, new birth, and a life-affirming aspiration “That perches in the soul.”