By Alison Buckholtz
It’s hard to know what Tolstoy, the go-to source on unhappy families, would have made of the Flynns. They’re the all-American Catholic brood at the center of A Catalog of Birds, a richly-peopled, old-fashioned novel about siblings and the spiderweb of circumstance that has woven them into a fixed place and time.
As the book opens, the future seems preordained for high-school senior Nell, a promising scientist, and her brother Billy, who has just returned to their home in upstate New York after a combat tour in Vietnam. But war in that far-off country may have landed a lasting strike against the Flynns. Even though Billy has come back alive—which is all the family had been hoping for during his year overseas–he is badly injured and emotionally scarred. Harrington’s depictions of post-war trauma and the former soldier’s urge toward personal obliteration are some of the most harrowing, genuine, and relevant passages in the book.
Billy’s future takes a U-turn for more ominous reasons, too: his high-school girlfriend, Megan, disappears from their small town. Megan is also Nell’s best friend, and even though Nell has information that might be helpful to police, she chooses not to tell because it would be too painful for her brother to know what really took place in his absence. Nell reveals only the minimum, and even that is cloaked to protect her family: “She’s running with a different crowd.”
As it becomes clear that Megan’s disappearance might be a murder, the understanding seeps like a noxious gas through the Flynns’ Finger Lakes farming community. For some, it’s merely unsettling; for Billy, nothing will ever be the same again.
That’s just as true for Nell, but for different reasons. She’s shadowed Billy through the woods near their home since she was old enough to walk, and he’s the one who taught her how to observe and draw all of the species of birds native to the area. He’s been her academic mentor, and she even plans to follow him to Cornell’s ornithology lab, where a professor is trying to secure scholarships for both Flynns.
Now that it’s time for Nell to come into her own—graduate high school, acknowledge a love she’s nurtured for a boy in town since childhood, and start her career—she’s in danger of being lost in her brother’s ever-darkening shadow. That’s because Billy’s disappearing, too: into drinking, into memories of Megan, into regret over an unspeakable tragedy during his combat tour. Neurological damage has left him unable to hear the birds whose mating calls and songs drew him into their otherworldly orbit, and unable to sketch them as he used to. His wings have been clipped. With no chance to soar, he sinks into despair.
Since Megan and Billy are both missing in different ways, Nell is left to cross the bridge from girlhood to womanhood alone. The question of whether or not she’ll make it to the other side gives A Catalog of Birds its lasting power. This is a disarming novel because it’s not obvious at first that the story is Nell’s instead of Billy’s. But this classic bildungsroman tracks the moral and psychological growth of a girl who starts out unaware of her own potential to sway the future in any direction. That’s one of the reasons she withholds the information about Megan, even though the facts could provide useful guidance to investigators. She only gradually realizes that she has a voice in the world and is not simply Billy Flynn’s little sister.
As Harrington negotiates plot twists and turns familiar to anyone who knows how families arm themselves for battle when a loved one’s life is at stake, her characters and her language become compelling in the most literal sense: they make it impossible to put the book down. Even the most wrenching scenes are delivered lyrically, as when Billy recalls coming back to consciousness after his accident:
The transfer to the Army hospital in Japan: the bruising landing, the shock of December cold. He’d passed out as he was moved from the stretcher to a bed, IVs taped back into place, his body like a side of beef, waiting for the next round of surgeons and the next as they set and reset bones in his forearm, elbow, shoulder, picking out shrapnel with each surgery, waiting, always waiting for the specialist to arrive and begin to reassemble what’s left of his hand.
Harrington is a generous author, and her understanding of peoples’ motivations—and the way cultural shifts inspire them to change course—isn’t limited to Billy and Nell. As she reflects on how an increasingly progressive, anti-war culture that had rooted in American cities years earlier finally reached a rural town in 1970, she also introduces the Flynns’ priest, who is threatened by the diocese with a demotion if he keeps speaking up against America’s involvement in Vietnam. Readers meet Billy’s art teacher, a divorcee who lives alone and believes that sex doesn’t involve guilt, regret, or sneaking around. And among the many Flynn siblings, there’s Nell and Billy’s older sister, a nurse who has chosen not to marry and moves to New York City to become a political activist in the Catholic workers’ movement.
Just as A Catalog of Birds sketches a community as detailed as a medieval miniature, its satisfyingly saturated portraits of each individual character, and their relationships with each other, create the feeling that the Flynns could be any reader’s cousins just a generation or two back. Fiction or family? It’s a sign of how well we get to know the Flynns that they seem like our own flesh and blood—and we care about them as if they are.
Harrington, Laura, A Catalog of Birds (Europa Editions, 2017).
Buy A Catalog of Birds here or at your local independent bookstore.
About the Author:
Laura Harrington teaches playwriting at MIT. Her award-winning plays, musicals, and operas have been widely produced across America, in Canada, and Europe, in venues ranging from off-off-Broadway to Houston Grand Opera. She is the author of Alice Bliss, a novel about a Gold Star family. Learn more on her web site.
About the Reviewer:
Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories. Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.
She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.