Book Review: “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas” by Marjorie Hudson
| Reviewed By Mary Ickes |
Marjorie Hudson defines accidental birds as Birds found outside their normal range, breeding area, or migration path, arrived through storm, wind, or unusual weather. The signature story, Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, illustrates her book’s concept.Retired Army Col. Randolph “Rand” Jefferson Lee and Anne, his wife, after decades of military life, have retired to the Southhaven Downs Retirement Village in Ambler County, North Carolina. Willingly an “accidental bird” during their roving years, Anne who had … spent her whole life making one temporary nest after another, is now making a home. A violent storm strands a painted bunting, a coastal bird, in their yard. While Anne adds the name to their Life List, Rand creates a sublist: Accidental Birds of the Carolinas. Painted bunting. A bird that didn’t belong there. Since Rand loathes Southhaven Downs and resents Anne’s nascent joy, both recognize the symbolism.
Like Rand and Anne, the main characters in the other seven stories, a disparate lot, have been blown off life’s course. Mourning a broken romance and disillusioned by science, her god, Elizabeth flees to Ambler County. As Sarton Lee ponders the aging process for himself and Wiener, his beloved Golden Retriever, he wishes that Wiener’s shedding fluff … might be reseeding my field with his own kind, I might see them come spring, tiny goldies popping up amongst the green rye. Evicted by his vicious father, Dip (age 16) works as a carney. Certain that her husband will kill her, Nina flees Detroit and keeps driving until she runs out of gas in Ambler County. Chief Enoe-Will of the Haw tribe, on his deathbed, dictates to his son Christian Jack the chronicle of his friendship with Englishman John Lawson (based on historical fact). The anonymous narrator in Home frantically prepares for the arrival of her new husband’s young son. And Jolene, a brilliant student, forsakes a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill scholarship for John, her literature teacher.
Rand’s story seems the logical choice for first place, but Elizabeth won the honor by writing about Ambler County: It takes no time at all to fall in love with such a place, if you are paying attention. … In those first weeks, I lay in my bed, heart pounding for this place where I lived. … I wanted to die of happiness. At first glance, Ambler County is paradise found.
As John and Jolene walked his land the first time, she noticed that The trunks of the [Gooley pines] rose from the gloom like pillars of some ancient temple … Far, far up, the green-gold crowns of the trees sparkled and shifted against blue sky. Every morning, Rand flees to Gooley Ridge for his daily run, where the Gooley pines often catch … a breeze and their needles shimmer down on him, greenly. The Sissipahaw River flows through Ambler County providing the Gooley pines with ample water, solace to accidental birds like Nina, and pools for escaping scorching temperatures. Town names sing the glories of Ambler County: Green Hope, Spring, and Quarryville.
Content animals inhabit the pages. Elizabeth is dismayed when Irma, Sarton’s Black Angus cow, ambles into her orchard to feast on fallen apples. Wiener … happy as a field of uncut wheat … ; Roger, a hound minus a leg; and Ace, a dog devoted to his young charge with Down Syndrome, smile and grin their contentment. Deer assume a mythical presence as they … materialize like unexpected rain from a single cloud. Warblers, cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, juncos, goldfinches, mocking birds, cattle egrets, barred owls, and whippoorwills grace the pages, trees, and skies. Enoe-Will notes that the hands of his people simulate birds, with gentle gestures and words, as they offer visitors friendship.
But alas, good fiction demands conflict, especially in stories of accidental birds, and Hudson succeeds splendidly in the natural and human realms.
Enoe-Will’s New World Testament casts a pall over the proud landowners. His friendship with John Lawson began when he asked Enoe-Will to guide him to the English settlement in Roanok. Enoe-Will agreed even though the English, for decades, had been seizing and plundering his people’s lands.
Christian Jack longs to free his father’s story from the English language because … when I write these words they cry out to be lifted up from these pages and to fly like the talking hands of my father’s People, before the English came.
The devastation in the wake of drought, fire, and flood pales in comparison to the human carnage. John’s grandfather felled a single Gooley pine to build his house, but Gooley Ridge is obviously all that remains of a forest ravaged to make way for Stonehaven Downs Retirement Village. The village’s looping swirl of roads smother miles of once-fertile crop land. The World’s Cutest Sheep, confined by an electric fence concealed in bushes, mock the vanished animal habitats. On Monday, Thursday, and Sunday mornings, the Sissipahaw River runs blue, green, or red from a yarn mill’s flushing.
The birds’ environmental ease contrasts starkly with the accidental birds floundering to re-establish a foothold in life. Rand settled down to a comfortable post-military existence; Ed Jones, whose son died in Vietnam, learns anew every day that You are never so alone as when a child dies. Another father imagines how jolly his family might have been if, after their daughter ran away, he had not threatened his wife: “You can just keep going if you go after that child.” While Dip proudly strives for identity and independence with dreadlocks and tattoos, he searches every crowd for something good. Seeking absolute solitude, Elizabeth scorns her friendly neighbors. She does not understand, nor does she ever intend to: that … Southerners define a person by her people. Guilt quickly sours Nina’s delight with her bucolic surroundings. Death claims Ambler County citizens for whom life was still a wondrous adventure.
Good fiction also requires a cast of secondary characters, which Hudson provides in full array. Whiskey Collins may not be college educated, but he realizes that the Sissipahaw River is dying. An elderly lady welcomes her neighbor with a piece of strawberry pie. Three towering black angels, one with blue eyes, protect the home of Reba Jones, a revered African-American midwife. Royal, Dip’s alcoholic, womanizing partner, provides a doctoral education on the finer points of a loser’s existence. A greedy farmer intends to renege on a land contract, plunging the other party into financial ruin. A racist remark disperses a child’s birthday party. As these secondary characters influence the main characters, enough conflict abounds to make Hudson’s fiction compelling and memorable.
Though written in prose as lush as the Gooley Ridge and refreshing as the Sissipahaw River, Hudson’s Ambler County community tends to be a confounding place because most of the stories do not end with each plot thread neatly tucked in and snipped. Questions abound. Does Dip find something good? Does the cynical Elizabeth finally realize the kindness and generosity she is rejecting? Does Rand apologize to Anne for his hostility?
Pondering the endings compares to a flock of warblers peacefully settled on Gooley Ridge until a hawk’s cry rends the air. We settle on the ending we want until But what if … scatters our logic. That, however, is the beauty of these stories: by pondering the possibilities of Ambler County’s accidental birds, we confront the accidental parts of ourselves seeking fulfillment.
BIO: Marjorie Hudson was born in a small town in Illinois, grew up in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Chatham County North Carolina. Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, a collection of stories, garnered Honorable Mention from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for Distinguished First Fiction, was a Novello Literary Award Finalist, a Southeast Independent Bookstore Association Nominee, and was named Best Story Collection of the Year by Perpetual Folly. Hudson’s creative nonfiction book, Searching for Virginia Dare, a North Carolina Arts Council Notable, is a mosaic of Blue Highways-style road trip, memoir, and historical research, exploring the fate of the mysterious 1587 Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. Recipient of fellowships from The Hemingway Foundation, Headlands Center for the Arts, the Ucross Foundation, and the North Carolina Arts Council, Hudson teaches in the Meredith College Summer Writing Program, Doe Branch Writers Ink, and the Central Carolina Community College Creative Writing Certificate Program, as well as her own Kitchen Table Writers Workshops. Her MFA is from Warren Wilson College.
VIEW FROM MY CATIO
Buddy, T. C.P. E.
(Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence)
Last month I posed a mystery: how long before Figaro, the tuxedo cat that Mary brought home from the veterinary’s office on May 4, would be touched by human hands again. Answer: 77 days. He’d been exploring the house and conversing with Tooley and me for weeks, giving Roy and Mary a wide berth. Then, on July 21, Figaro stopped by Roy long enough to be petted and let Mary pet him the next day. Was she thrilled or what! He’s still very skittish, but definitely likes attention. He also appears instantaneously at the sound of a snack hitting a bowl. Mary is convinced that he beams himself to the snack site. As the elder feline statesman around here, I’m very proud of our little guy.