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."