Book Review: The Bird Saviors, by William J. Cobb

The Bird Saviors
by William J. Cobb
Unbridled Books
2012
309 pages 

If you’re looking for a novel to read while the government is in the midst of this sequester craziness (since it looks like this is going to happen), you’re in the right place.

Don’t leave yet, though, because this book? Is fantastic and absolutely well worth the read, sequester or fiscal cliff or political shenanigans be damned.

Actually, there’s a bit of damnation involved in The Bird Saviors, come to think of it.

The Bird Saviors is set in modern-day Colorado in a seemingly not-too-distant future (maybe closer than author William J. Cobb thought) marked by a confluence of high unemployment, food and fuel shortages, extreme climate change and dust storms, illegal immigration, mysterious avian-borne viruses similar in scale to HIV/AIDS, and religious zealots.

One of those is 17 year old Ruby Cole’s father, whom she has appropriately nicknamed Lord God. He’s a proud but grumpy veteran of a war in the Middle East, who is now

“out of work and has given up looking for more. He lives off disability [he has a prosthetic leg] but its hardly a living. He preaches now at the Lamb of the Forsaken Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints. “His congregation is mostly lost souls and the lonely, living hand to mouth.” pg. 11

At 17, Ruby is already a mother of a toddler. They live with Lord God, who watches baby Lila while Ruby goes to school and spends her leisure time counting birds (most of which are on the verge of extinction). She gives the birds made-up names – Smoke Larks, Grief Birds, Squeakies, Moon Birds.

Early on in The Bird Saviors, William J. Cobb introduces his reader to a memorable cast of characters that includes

“an equestrian police officer, pawnshop riffraff, Nuisance Animal [Control] destroyers, and a grieving ornithologist who is studying the decline of bird populations. All the while, a growing criminal enterprise moves from cattle-rustling to kidnapping to hijacking fuel tankers and murder, threatening the entire community.” (from the book jacket cover)

I honestly hadn’t heard of The Bird Saviors before seeing it on my library’s new books shelf and I believe it’s one of the best books you’ve probably not heard too much about, either. I haven’t seen it reviewed on many of the book blogs. (Then again, I’m rather behind on my blog reading.) Powerfully haunting, the writing and symbolism are fantastic throughout the course of the entire novel. You wonder how Cobb is possibly going to connect all these wayward characters- because you know their lives are too quirky not to intersect, as they do, briefly, in the beginning.

But it is in the vivid descriptions of this desert landscape, and the counting of the birds, and the saving of the ones that are rare and injured, where Cobb’s skill as an author truly shines. The birds become a stand-in for our own fragility and how we all need some saving from the people we encounter in our lives – our loved ones and strangers alike – and sometimes, even ourselves.

Sometimes, as Ruby and some of the other well-developed characters discover in The Bird Saviors, we find someone else who is also similarly injured, just as broken, who can help save us as we make our way through a scary and uncertain world.

“Ward watches a murder of Crows flap and squawk past the yard, diving and swooping at the wide wings of a Red Tailed Hawk. The hawk glides and beats its wings, fades into the tan sky.

Ward takes these sighting as a good sign, as a sign of hope. Ruby has told him about her conversation with Lord God. Now the blades of hope and faith turn in Ward’s head like a windmill. Too often faith is the word preachers use to ask for money. When he questioned the idea of a benevolent God who would let so many suffer and let his daughter die in pain, he was told the Lord works in mysterious ways. That he had to have faith. That he had to let go of his earthly hopes and dreams and put his soul in the hands of the Lord, who would reward him with everlasting life.

Ward can never lose the suspicion that the reward of blind faith is blindness.

Hope is a smaller, more reliable thing. You don’t have to bank on the idea of a supreme being to hope for a better day, for Lila not to come down with the fever, for Ruby to keep a shelter over her head, for rain to come in the summer, as it has in the past. Faith is a shield, an excuse, an alibi.

Hope is something you can carry in your pocket. Something you can give to others. Something you can act on.” (pg. 285-286)

Do yourself a favor. Sequester yourself for awhile with this one.

5 stars out of 5. (Bonus points for my PA friends and Penn State fans: author William J. Cobb lives in Pennsylvania and teaches in the writing program at Penn State.)

Author William J. Cobb’s blog is here.

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