Hope Is the Thing With Feathers

(Joyce Hinnefeld)
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Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, October 19, 2008


By Joyce Hinnefeld

Unbridled. 263 pp. $24.95

Americans spent $25 billion on books last year, about $6 billion less than they spent on bird watching. Publishers know this, of course, which is why we get a steady supply of updated and reconstituted guides from Sibley, Peterson, Audubon and their various descendants, executors and imitators. There's a natural sympathy between reading books and watching birds: The quiet, solitary pursuit of something beautiful and elusive in a novel or a forest requires the kind of patience and attention that our noisy culture rages against. But beyond this large assortment of illustrated guides, there's disappointingly little fiction for avid birders to read (compared to, say, the number of books about lawyers or serial killers or lawyers who are serial killers). If you're keeping a list -- and if you're a serious bird watcher, you are -- you've already read two very fine novels about John James Audubon: Creation, by Katherine Govier, and Audubon's Watch, by John Gregory Brown.

Here's another one to look out for: a rare, delicate novel that takes its title from Roger Tory Peterson's description of the bobolink's song: "in hovering flight and quivering descent, ecstatic and bubbling, starting with low, reedy notes and rollicking upward." Peterson's words serve as an apt description of this story, too, with its strangely complex movement and wide emotional range. You won't need any special knowledge of birds to enjoy In Hovering Flight, but it does require a birder's close attention because Joyce Hinnefeld is doing something difficult and intricate here.

The story takes place in 2002 in a cottage along the New Jersey shore during the morning hours after the death of Addie Kavanagh. A renowned environmental activist and artist, Addie had given up her battle against cancer and chosen this spot to die, surrounded by her husband, her adult daughter and two women she's known since college. Exhausted and grieving, they're lulled into reminiscences, and we're drawn along the circuitous flight of their memories of Addie and her profound influence on their lives.

For us, her story begins in 1965 when she takes an ornithology class from an unorthodox professor at a small Christian college in Pennsylvania. Dr. Tom Kavanagh quickly succumbs to Addie's charms, particularly the delightful entries in her bird-watching notebook: a kind of hybrid love letter, diary and field journal, illustrated with her captivating drawings. "I think I'm burning up with the same thing Audubon was burning with," she writes to her professor, without any regard for proper scientific form. "I am in love with birds, and I don't quite know what to do about it." You can't help but be caught up in the way Hinnefeld portrays their hunger for winged creatures, and for each other. "Tom Kavanagh's passion for birds did not frighten her," she writes. "What he had, and what she wanted, was clear to her from that first morning: a passion for birds -- for truly hearing, seeing, knowing them -- that made everything else in life seem trivial."

Early in their marriage, they collaborate in creating a seminal work of the environmental and antiwar movement, a book called A Prosody of Birds. Hinnefeld describes the book as something almost magical, "an odd blend of delicate artist's plates and dense poetic scansions of birdsongs . . . an idiosyncratic hodgepodge, wildly disorganized and provocative."

While they're creating this cult classic, they also have a daughter, Scarlet, named after the scarlet tanager. She adores her hippie parents even as she competes for their attention. Addie, in particular, is consumed with the kind of activist determination that eventually turns angry, despairing and relentlessly pessimistic. Even bird songs no longer give her joy; they only remind her that "breeding grounds are being decimated." It's a painful portrayal of the emotional toll that such awareness can wreak on a sensitive soul, falling into "bottomless despair at the plight of the earth." Who among us could function if we remembered every moment that we're being poisoned by "Paint. Gasoline. Seafood. Dental fillings, antiseptics, thermometers, blood-pressure gauges. Fluorescent bulbs"?

In the hours after Addie's death, Scarlet, now 34, serves as the focal point of the novel while she considers "her puzzle of a mother." She realizes with that strange jolt that comes to us late in life that "there were things about her mother and father that she didn't know." Who was this ferociously determined woman with "her moral superiority, her absolute confidence . . . all her raving . . . her angry rants"? Who could live with such a mother -- or now without her?

Among its many other subjects, this story is a moving consideration of the emotional paradox of hospice. Without descending into the medical pornography of so much writing about illness nowadays, Hinnefeld explores the ordeal of modern cancer treatment, the bargaining with toxins, the statistical gambling, the unthinkable challenge of deciding whether to endure one more round.

The movement of this novel is frankly a miracle, but a natural one -- like the graceful flight of a bird, gliding along a path you couldn't trace if you tried. I can't imagine how the author conceived of this structure or had any idea where she was as she was creating it. But the more I read, the more impressed I became at her gently insistent exploration. This is a book so assured and confident that it gradually teaches you how to read it. Hinnefeld moves again and again through the lives of Tom, Addie and Scarlet, revisiting the same events, letting details slowly accrue, building our understanding of these characters and their complicated friendships. A certain degree of suspense builds up, but that's not really the point. In Hovering Flight is as quiet as twilight and just as lovely. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at

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