When a dust storm engulfs her Colorado town and pink snow blankets the streets, a heartbreaking decision faces Ruby Cole, a girl who counts She must abandon her baby or give in to her father, whom she nicknames Lord God, and marry a man more than twice her age who already has two wives. She chooses to run, which sets in motion an interlocking series of actions and reactions, upending the lives of an equestrian police officer, pawnshop riffraff, a disabled war vet, Nuisance Animal destroyers, and a grieving ornithologist--a field biologist studies the decline of bird populations. All the while, a growing criminal enterprise moves from cattle rustling to kidnapping to hijacking fuel tankers and murder as events spin out of control,.
Set in a time of economic turmoil, virus fears, climate change, fundamentalist cults and illegal immigrant hardship, The Bird Saviors is a visionary story of defiance, anger, and compassion, in which a young woman ultimately struggles to free herself from her domineering father, to raise her daughter in the chaos of the New West, and to become something greater herself.
William J. Cobb is a novelist, essayist, and short fiction writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker, The Mississippi Review, The Antioch Review, and many others. He's the author of two novels - The Fire Eaters (W.W. Norton 1994) and Goodnight, Texas (Unbridled Books 2006) - and a book of stories, The White Tattoo (Ohio State UP 2002). He reviews books for the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Times, and directs the MFA program at Penn State. He lives in Pennsylvania and Colorado.
This book is melodramatic, over stylized and flawed. It's also obsessed with references to objects that are blood-red, silhouettes that are black, and clouds that are menacing (oh, and of course, birds).
And as I tripped over the dramatic language and wondered at all of the red and the black and the repetitive mentioning of birds on almost every page, I was almost going mad with a nagging suspicion that something was happening that I needed to understand. I could tell immediately that this William J. Cobb knew how to write, so I stopped, about 20 pages in, and I started over again.
I went back to the first page, and began with the first three lines of the book:
Lord God is talking again. He does love to hear himself speak. A graybeard loon, he sits hunched over the kitchen table, his arms sunburned, nose hooked, hair thin and wiry, ranting hoarse-voiced about sinners and socialists.
A graybeard loon. A graybeard loon. Where do I know this from? Who is the graybeard loon?
And a big shout from me. And then understanding.
The ancient mariner. The ancient mariner is the graybeard loon.
Next thing you know, I've located an old copy of all seven parts of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and I'm pacing in my room, reciting the lines out loud. One of my daughters came to my door, looked in at me reading the poem, shrugged her shoulders and walked away.
And I returned to the book and shouted (to no one but my nerdy lit self) NOW I GET IT!! I GET THE RED SKIES AND THE STORMY WEATHER AND THE MARINER WHO KILLS THE ALBATROSS AND CURSES THE SHIP AND PAYS THE PRICE FOR HIS MISTAKE.
And then I'm ripping through the book, TOTALLY understanding what's happening, and I am committed. Man, I am so very committed.
Because, to ENJOY this book, you need to understand it. You need to grasp that this book is a nod to some very dramatic people: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Faulkner, George Eliot, and Ernest Hemingway (to name a few).
It is also, in my opinion, a literary nod to Picasso's famous painting, Guernica.
This, my friends, is a mad, mad world.
Or, as Lord God (who is an actual man, the protagonist's father) says, “It's the end of the world.” The beginning of the end of the world, more correctly, or as one character puts it, “this is nothing but hourglass sand running out.”
This is not post-apocalyptic; it's potentially a few months from today. It's pre-apocalyptic, if you will. And it's scary as hell, because it's crazy realistic and so much of what is wrong seems already set into motion today.
And the bird saviors can't save us, but by counting the birds, they are continuing to hope, for as long as the birds are alive, there is hope for the existence of people.
And people do exist here, in this crazy, red world. They continue to create new life, too. In the end, it's a hopeful crew, despite the odds.
When I finished the book this evening, I went back and re-read Coleridge's ballad, and I appreciated anew these lines from the poem:
Farewell, farewell! But this I tell To thee, thou Wedding Guest He prayeth well, who loveth well Both man and bird and beast. He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small.
And I was impressed again, to see how Mr. Cobb's novel mirrors both Coleridge's fears and optimism. The overall message seems to be: if we get our acts together and shift our priorities, there's still hope for our world.
But, if we disregard the bird and beast, we are declaring we care not for the fate of man. And if they perish, we are sure to be next.
I found myself completely enthralled in every character, every plot line, and I found myself both startled and confused by this reminder of humankind's tendency toward greed and apathy.
A world of plague and hope: A review of The Bird Saviors
REVIEW - From the February 04, 2013 issue High Country News By Jenny Shank The Bird Saviors William J. Cobb 320 pages, hardcover: $25.95. Unbridled Books, 2012.
In William J. Cobb's lyrical novel The Bird Saviors, a mysterious virus strikes the residents of Pueblo, Colo. Some blame wild birds for spreading the disease, which leaves victims incapacitated for weeks or eventually kills them. Employees of the Department of Nuisance Animal Control, including strapping George Armstrong Crowfoot, patrol the land and shoot birds. Ward Costello, who lost his wife and baby to the flu, is an ornithologist studying the decline of bird populations around Pueblo. He hires Ruby Cole, a 17-year-old bird expert and mother of a toddler, to help.
Meanwhile, Ruby's fundamentalist preacher father is pressuring her to become the third wife of Hiram Page, pawnshop owner and nefarious leader of a local branch of renegade Mormons calling themselves Saints.
A ne'er-do-well Saints affiliate named Jack Brown tangles with Crowfoot and Page, to his regret; undocumented immigrants scrape out an existence in places where "what little is left of town looks like Mars conquered by Cortés"; and Officer Israel James rides his police horse through the chaos, trying to maintain order as the world around him loses it.
Power outages are frequent, dust tinges snowfalls, and "now more often than not the skies are clear and hateful, not a bird shadow or silhouette to be seen. Taken for granted are fires in the foothills and dust storms off the plains."
The Bird Saviors may be an apocalyptic novel, but it contains plenty of love, hope and humor -- Cobb describes one character as "the kind of woman who could be the mother of beautiful children or the teller of a First National Bank." Cobb writes of the hardscrabble city of Pueblo with affection. Nature may be compromised, but it's still capable of beauty: "A herd of antelope grazes in the stretched-out morning shadows of the turbine towers."
As Cobb's cast of characters clash, connive and yearn, those who seem incapable of redemption surprise us when they achieve it. As human beings have for centuries, the people in The Bird Saviors go on falling in love, working and raising children, trying to live full lives despite the hint of doom in the air.
Dystopia doesn't have to be some barely imaginable, distant future. It can be so close to reality that it is scary, and that's how this book felt to me. Not far off in the future but a more extreme version of what is happening now: killing drought, dust storms, pink snow, and the bird population decimated. That the setting is a part of Colorado very familiar to me made the story all the more realistic.
I loved Ruby from page one. I even wondered from the beginning if the domineering Lord God (Ruby's father, a flesh-and-bones person) might have a decent soul under all that harshness. The characters in this book were wonderful to get to know, even when I didn't always like them.
Down inside where it matters, he knows his soul is corrupt. He even suspects that one day, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, he will burn in the everlasting fires and torments of hell. But seeing how he's not exactly a saint to being with, the underworld might be full of compadres.
I am not a fan of dialogue without quotation marks, especially when dialogue and narrative are in the same paragraph. And some of the metaphors seemed to draw attention to themselves a bit too much. Despite those minor issues, the writing was lovely and I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.
I was fortunate to receive a free advance reader's copy through LibraryThing, and the quote may have changed in the finished edition.
The premise of William J. Cobb’s The Bird Saviors sounds intriguing and timely. An in-depth reading of the novel, however, soon reveals just how far Cobb misses the mark.
Dead birds, massive climate changes, oil crises, viruses, uncertain futures, cults, religious fundamentalism, war in the Middle East–all of these are popular apocalyptic topics Cobb uses in his story. The Bird Saviors also becomes a coming-of-age tale with Ruby, a teen mom who loves her daughter, Lila, with all her heart and would do anything to protect the child, even if that means leaving her behind. Ruby is Cobb’s most well-developed character. Her father, who she calls “Lord God,” is also finely crafted and more than a little scary. If only Cobb had kept his narrative focus on Ruby.
Instead, Cobb shifts perspective away from his star to other, less interesting, less believable, and less likeable characters–people I never connected with nor cared about. The Bird Saviors would have been a wonderful novel if Cobb had chosen to tell the tale solely from Ruby’s point of view. Cobb, in his narrative shifts, bungles the story, and the result is jumbled and unfocused.
I was hoping for something akin to Summer of the Apocalypse by James Van Pelt or Into the Forest by Jean Hegland. The Bird Saviors, despite its early promise, falls short. Even poor little Ruby cannot save this tale.
I thought this really was amazing (the caption for five stars). I was drawn in immediately by the story line, but what impressed me the most was that my feelings about characters changed as the story went. I felt like I myself was going through the greater understanding that the protagonist is supposed to go through.
Interesting take on the future. Complex characters interacting in a small town out in the Southwest. The story jangles along in a way that makes perfect context. And the birds as saviors and messengers.
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.
When I first came across this book, the summary focused on the presence of a bird flu or some other phenomenon which was killing birds off over time. Me, being the doomsday lover that I am, quickly snatched it up thinking it was another end-of-the-world book which I seem to have a fondness for. About a quarter of the way through, I realized it was most definitely NOT that, but there was something about it that kept me reading.
In a small Colorado town, Ruby finds herself living at home with her father while taking care of her baby, Lily. At the age of seventeen, Ruby is young and without a husband so when her father, Lord God tells her that he plans to marry her off to a much older man, Ruby makes a difficult decision and leaves home to avoid marriage to a man she doesn’t love.
There are shades of the future in this story in that there is a bird flu and people are falling ill with fever, but the book itself is really about broken and damaged people. Small town, small town life. Wretched people and good folks. Lord God is a member of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints so he has strong feelings regarding what a family should be and how Ruby should be raising her daughter. The mere presence of Lord God is rather disturbing at first. He literally looms over young Ruby when you first meet him, but his interactions with the baby show a different side, which in my opinion made him much more likable.
Much of the book focuses on Lord God and Ruby and the wife that left him because of his religious beliefs but there are other characters in the book with their own stories and when they all come together, as stories taking place in a small town typically do, I can’t say I was disappointed.
As far as plot, there wasn’t a whole lot going on but the characters were so unique and the dialogue between them was really quite well done. By the end of the book, I felt as if I knew these characters pretty well, given the short time I spent with them.
The Bird Saviors is slightly dark with plenty of dysfunctional characters. If you enjoy books by Cormac McCarthy I think you’ll enjoy this one too. I found it to be a compelling read.
Note from Ti: Now that the book is out, I see that many of the websites I viewed earlier have adjusted their summaries to be more in line with what it’s really about.
Whether it's Cormac McCarthy's scalp-hunters wrecking apocalypse then, or The Bird Saviors living through an apocalypse now, the empty, but ghost ridden, dust be-deviled, water scarce, and myth-haunted SW offers the perfect landscape for the prelude to the end-times. And just as I put the book down the New Yorker (Jan 20, 2014) came out with an article detailing the latest eco-catastrophe to hit the desert and plains.
In the book, somewhere in the region of Pueblo, CO a pall of red dust is hanging in the lower atmosphere, and it's wrecking havoc getting into this, that, and the other, with the other being the locals' lungs. The result is a flu that kills. Or maybe the flu is being carried by the birds.
In real life, on December 20th, 2013, a strong wind blew of out California's Tehachapi Mountains and "lofted a cloud of loose topsoil and mustard-colored dust into the sky... wind speeds as high as 192 mph...Windows on houses were sand-blasted to paper thinness....The Tempest from Tehachapi...spread dirt over an area the size of Maine..." The lingering result has been over 100 cases of "valley fever," and six of the victims died. Over the past twenty years, there have been less than 6 reported cases a year.
In the book, as in real life, life goes on; but, in the book, unlike real life, birds are disappearing. It's not like they're falling out of the sky and landing in heaps, but they are disappearing, though no one really knows why, and with them the hopes and dreams of the residents author William Cobb gives us to follow.
The motley cast of characters are low level criminals, a wretched pawn shop owner, a disgusting colony of fundamentalist Morman "polygs," a Bowie Knife wielding, scalp taking, very large Indian recluse/cave painter, Ruby, a 17 year old single mother, and her father whom she calls "Lord God," a mounted cop, an ornithologist, and a number of other misfits. All their paths cross, and therein is the novel, simple enough but way too complicated for me to lay out.
This is a good book that will stick with you - especially if you've ever lived anywhere near the apocalyptic SW.
Set in a near future of climate change, disease, and economic unrest, the novel focuses on several characters who live in a dusty, impoverished town in Colorado. Ruby is a teen-aged single mother who has ambitions to do something worthwhile with her life, despite the fact that her father--a fundamentalist Mormon preacher--wants to marry her off as some older man's third wife. Hiram Page, a disreputable pawn shop owner, is the man he's thinking of. Hiram controls a crime syndicate of polygamist Mormons, whose misdeeds range from cattle rustling to murder.
A variety of others cross paths with these people, including a Native American named George Crowfoot; a mounted policeman called "Elray," some small time crooks and lonely women, and a widowed ornithologist who hires Ruby to help him count birds. The plot is loosely centered on Hiram's misdeeds, but the force of the book seems independent of the story-line, a meditation on loss and longing and the necessity of moving forward despite all that.
The story is not without hope. People can find some connection and meaning even in a discouraging time, and they do. There's a quiet resolution that left me feeling that, although things cannot be perfect, the cycles of karma had quietly triumphed. Meanwhile, disease still rampages, the land is ever more desolate, and the birds dwindle.
My final impression of this book is that it is sad. This is to the author's credit, in a way; what made it sad for me was the way he got into the minds of the characters, even the "bad" ones, and gave us a glimpse of some pitiful being just limping along through life. Even the weak, greedy or cowardly characters, in the end, seemed more pathetic than evil.
This book made me think of The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, another rather depressing take on the near future. Fans of literary, slightly dystopian fiction will probably enjoy this one. It wasn't really my cup of tea, but it had its merits.
In a time where the sci-fi genre is glutted by YA books also shelved in the "paranormal romance" section, the ideas behind The Bird Saviors are a welcome break to the norm. A dust bowl-like environmental catastrophe, avian flu returned with a vengeance, fundamentalist Mormons, and the scapegoated killing of birds combine in this near-future novel best categorized as post-apocalyptic to create an engaging plot and varied cast of characters. The problem with the book? It reads like a somewhat-literary Western novel, focusing mostly on the action and relationships between characters and little on the underlying development. The background behind the apocalyptic scenarios is barely explained, and it took me a while to connect the "Saints" gang with FLDS characters already met. The characters largely felt underdeveloped, with the author focusing more on their sex lives (non-explicitly) and current actions rather than any deeper motives and backgrounds. The sense of time was confusing, often jumping several weeks without explanation. But despite these issues, The Bird Saviors is well-worth a read for the plot. Rarely dragging, the storyline takes readers on one whirlwind of a series of events, effortlessly switching between multiple character viewpoints to provide many angles for the issues at hand.
This story of several flawed but good-hearted characters and a few total jerks is set in a climate-ravaged central Colorado city of the near future. If there is a main character, it is Ruby, a teenage single mother who, along with most of the other characters, yearns to break free from the meaninglessness of daily life. She finds some hope in her job as an assistant to a scientist who has come to investigate the bird populations of the area after a major epidemic has wiped out a significant number of both birds and people. This novel is peopled with a lot of quirky characters -- some LDS members who have gone to the dogs, Mexican immigrants, a Native American artist, a policeman who rides a horse, and their multiple story lines are loosely connected as we see their varied responses to life's challenges in this verging-on-dystopian society. The various plots move along quickly, but I felt they all ended rather abruptly and without resolution for the most part. Maybe there's going to be a sequel. Bird Saviors is vividly written and was am enjoyable read. Recommended. --Alice
The Bird Saviors by William J. Cobb artfully blends the desolate enchantment of the desert lands of Southern Colorado with a cast of colorful down-and-out characters who find their lives subtly intertwining on the brink of what promises to be either the next big depression or the beginning of the end.
In a near-future ravaged by an alarming bird-flu pandemic and economic turmoil, a seventeen-year-old single mother finds her religious father trying to wed her off to Hiram Page, a shady pawn shop owner with two wives. She decides to take her destiny into her own hands and finds a job counting birds for a grieving, widowed ornithologist. Throughout the book, various other characters touch their lives in one way or another, including a vigilante Arapaho, Hiram Page's criminal counterparts, a scorned bride, and a shoddy police officer.
Overall, while the plot moves a little slowly, the character's true motives and intentions are gloriously revealed during the books final, well deserved climax. It's a story worth sticking out to the end.
Another DNF: I kept trying to like this, trying to understand how the threads would tie together, trying to care about the characters. And at first I did, but by halfway through, I realized that I never would.
This was promoted as having dystopian overtones, but all I saw was a fever and a dustbowl-like climate. The addition of the FLDS seemed a bit gratuitous, as Lord God would have been just as effective had be preached for any other denomination (and his preaching? didn't really play a role in the portion of the book I read). It didn't make a lot of sense that Juliet would come back to care for Lila, and the Becca/wedding ring episode was forced.
In thinking about it, this was really a few shorter stories (or novellas) that were interlinked. Presenting them that way might have been more effective, rather than forcing additional links to create one novel.
if you've read cobb's book about the sinking coastlines of texas, you'll know he has a knack of imagining the lives of folk carrying on, even in the face of sure disaster and unredemptive capitalism, environmental meltdown, and greek tragedy. "bird savoirs" is a bit in the same, drought, storms, power outages, flu that kills birds and people; truthers, hippies, cops, all try to simultaneously profit from the chaos we have created, and make things better. cobb's most fully formed global weirding novel yet. told with beautiful empathy and cool detachment, great stories.
The Bird Saviors is close, in essence, to the writing of Richard Russo, but not quite on par. It is a thoughtful, provocative novel that keeps the reader’s attention despite the fact there are a few loose ends that need attention. Questions of logic arise, such as why Ruby did not leave home with her mother (a structurally weak ploy). Yet, it is redeemed by the author’s intriguing plot, character development and style of writing. The ending is a bit sappy, although probable. Where Cobb’s portrait of a southwestern desert family is not a masterpiece, it is an interesting piece of writing worth reading.
I did not realise what the genre of the book was prior to reading it, which explains how I ended up reading a dystopian novel. I admit this is not a genre I typically enjoy and rarely read which is most likely why I can only give the book 3 stars. However, I enjoyed Cobb's well-written characters and would advise those who enjoy dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels to check out other reviews as I do not think I can give a fully unbiased review since I have few novels of this genre to compare it with.
I got really into this story about a desolate Colorado town in the near future when climate change has wreaked its havoc, an avian flu is decimating the population and fundamentalists run rampant. In the midst of all of this, Cobb has created a cast of interesting characters who get into lots of trouble. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I only give it four stars because I felt it ended with way to many loose ends flapping in the wind. I'm a little mad about that right now.
This book is set in Colorado(during a "dust-bowl" heatwave) about the near future. The "fundies" are either at war,or barley coexisiting. Everyone blames the immigrants, eachother, and the birds. The climate, both political and desert-like, was a bit too close for comfort. But I like the relevancy, and the atmosphere, and the survivors (with their laden hearts and their tormented souls).
I didn't really like this book so much. First of all, it felt like when you started this book it had already started without you and so your missing a part of the story. It was disjointed. The second half of the of the book was better than the first half. But still that didn't really make up the for the book.
While it took me a bit of time to get into this dystopian tale, I'm really glad I stuck with it. The characters come alive through description and actions. These are real people, not perfect, but trying to do their best in a difficult world. I very much recommend this book.
I'm not sure if I liked this book? I did not hate it, yet it felt like something was missing. I do know I did not like the ending. However, I did like the style in which it was written, kind of like a black and white movie wanting to be in color.
Not a bad book. Only gave it three stars because it wasn't a book that really made me ignore my children crying so I could read it, but good enough that I wanted to find out what happened in the end. I finished it and felt just fine with it.
Captures the feeling of open space and nature in the midst of telling a story of becoming. I really liked Ruby, and enjoyed her battle for independence and security. And the birds form a nature backdrop that appeals to anyone who senses nature through the sounds and flight of birds.