This is the honest truth: the history of the passenger pigeon extinction makes an author want to write from a pissed off place. You can’t get around it — I mean, you read about nineteenth century folks shooting seven or eight birds with one shot and catching them in an outstretched cap as they do a little dance, and you think, Barbarians! Thugs! Louts!
You realize that this is partly — okay, mostly — about you (a twenty-first century, iPhone-clutching, being). You’re overwhelmed by thoughts of how you’ve been robbed of this experience. Did none of your relatives ever think that you might like to see pigeon feathers flashing green, red, and blue in the light of the setting sun? Didn’t they realize that you had a need to be startled by the natural world, that you might want to feel the awe-inspiring fear of them as their sound grew louder and louder, or that you needed to reflexively fall to the ground in fear as they passed overhead?
At this point, you get a little self-righteous: You will never be that stupid. Never!
And in the momentum of all that huff and puff, you try to write a novel about passenger pigeons set in 1871. You need a person in this novel, so you imagine a person filled with with your twenty-first century pissed-off-ness.
* * *
Okay, maybe that’s not you. I’d bet good money you’re not as foolish as all that — unlike me.
Yeah, it was a disaster. I mean what was I supposed to do? Have my character stand in front of the passenger pigeon nesting in a super-girl outfit? In 1871?
The problem with characters is that they exist — live, breath and think — in a particular place and time. (How dare they!) So what’s a writer to do? My fix (eventually, arduously) was to think of the passenger pigeons as a setting, a living, breathing landscape — not a theme, or an “issue.” I wrote another story, a western, in front of this “setting” about a thirteen-year-old girl who goes off to find her older sister. Everyone says the sister is dead and for good reason too — the body has been buried. So One Came Home is an adventure, a western and a mystery all rolled up into one — and it’s told in front of the back drop of an enormous passenger pigeon nesting.
I loved the story of Georgie Burkhardt and the search for her sister, and with the passenger pigeons in my peripheral vision (so to speak) it freed up Georgie to be herself. The birds were still there, but I wasn’t forcing words down her throat. And in the end, I think what she sees — and what she doesn’t see — speaks more about the tragedy of extinction.
It also speaks to the cultural blind spots of the nineteenth century. Hey, we’ve all got them.