A Review of
Birds of a Feather: Stories
Kaye Park Hinckley
Paperback: Wiseblood Books, 2014
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Deborah Rocheleau
*** This book was chosen as one of our best books of the first half of 2014!
Not all the stories in Kaye Park Hinckley’s Birds of a Feather feature a bird. However, they have other traits in common, stories of faith and hurting characters flocking together in this collection of faith-based southern fiction. From nurses to abortionists to the ghosts of colonels, a varied cast of characters face a number of spiritual themes, but they almost all invariably touch on sin, guilt, and forgiveness. While the stories are far from flawless, suffering from inconsistent characterization and repetitiveness, they nevertheless delve into the deep secrets and hidden pasts of their troubled characters.
Hinckley shows a fondness for symbolism, from the figurative and literal erosion of a family’s home foundation in “Little Things, Big Things” to the unnamed cat in “Jimmy’s Cat,” whose anonymity reflects the neglected state of the story’s real protagonist, Jimmy’s wife. Even the many birds appearing throughout the stories add meaning to the collection. Wings flutter across the pages in many forms, from cardinals to dragons to a child’s “body still warm and limp as a newborn bird” (212). Many an image lingers in the reader’s mind long after the characters and their voices blur together: a dragonish reflection, a panama hat, a finger healed crooked, all visualizations respectively of the guilt, sin, and redemption the characters experience. Some symbols Hinckley feels compelled to explain explicitly through narration, such as the broken finger in “The Psalm of David Fowler.” Speaking of David Fowler, a prisoner, Hinckley writes “Any future he’d have might be as misshapen as that finger, but in this present moment, light shined in the darkness of the prison” (98). Others remain more subtle, such as the wire-wrapped dove in “Blue Bird of Happiness,” which with a few well-placed details Hinckley likens back to the main character, Blue. Describing the dove, Hinckley writes “there was no blood to be seen” (136), an understated reference to Blue’s claim that he keeps himself from “bleeding a red contrition” (126) over the guilt he feels in his job as an abortionist.
For all their depth and artistry, the stories suffer from a few nagging issues. Problems in narration prove the most debilitating to what could be insightful glimpses into the minds of complex characters. In “Red Bird,” we find a narrator, Jude, clearly suffering from Alzheimer’s, despite his claims that “his thinking is more acute” (3) now than in the past. This could make for an intriguing narration, that of a man so lost in his disease he cannot recognize his own faulty thinking. Instead of immersing us in this confused mind, however, the story follows a fragmented format, jolting from present-day to flashbacks through scene breaks and italics, destroying any illusion the reader might have as to Jude’s lucidity. In effect, the reader experiences the disorienting mind of an Alzheimer’s patient from the outside, rather than as Jude himself would—that is, as a perfectly logical, “acute” flow of thoughts.
“Blue Bird of Happiness” suffers from a similar problem. Its main character, Blue, an abortionist haunted by a guilty conscience over his line of work, is certainly complex—however, we never get to see this complexity played out. Sure, Blue clearly states his conflicted feelings, claiming “There are days when I can’t show my face” (126) because of his guilt. At the same time, he continues performing abortions, declaring “I can’t weigh the procedure with my heart, or measure it with my integrity” (131), suggesting detachment as a form of coping. This conflict makes for an intriguing character, a man who manages to routinely do what his conscience tells him is wrong. Unfortunately, we never get to see the coping mechanisms by which he reconciles this situation. We see the guilt, but none of the detachment, professionalism, or whatever else allows him to continue his practice.
Characterization aside, the stories suffer from a repetitiveness that feels less like artistic echoing than Déjà vu. Whether it be infidelity, murdered daughters, or narrators with memory problems, certain plot devices appear across stories in ways more confusing than thought-provoking. For example, the story of a daughter’s murder in “Moon Dance: A Love Story” matches almost perfectly that in “The Pleasure of Company: A Ghost Story.” This similarity leaves the reader wondering what comparison, if any, they ought to draw between the two. The stories’ proximity, “The Pleasure of Company” coming right after “Moon Dance,” further adds to the confusion.
As for the writing itself, Hinckley’s understated, occasionally clunky prose weaves faith into these stories in compelling ways. At times the message seems heavy-handed, as in the church-worthy words of the young girl in “The Pleasure of Company.” However, this same directness shines through the narration in “Moon Dance,” where the narrator declares “God is the span of time between darkness and light. Little by little, like the moon, He shows His reflection, and patiently waits for us to ask Him into the dance” (186). This heartfelt narration speaks of God unapologetically, with similes as at home in a sermon as in the mouth of this elderly narrator.
Hinckley doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of life, even if some of her endings err on the side of too good to be true. “The Mercy Seat” in particular sticks out for its unbelievable resolution, characters good-heartedly forgiving each other for atrocious sins with only a few tears for good measure. Other stories, such as “Dragon” end so tragically they seem to negate the hope so prominent in “The Mercy Seat.” However, when seen as a flock, and not as individual birds, Kaye Park Hinckley’s stories give a fuller picture of the Christian faith. Like a bird-watcher, the thoughtful reader can even learn to spot the flutter of redemption in these stories.