The Wild Birds, Emily Strelow's debut novel, transports the reader into settings rooted in their relationship with the earth, where the reader gets to know the story's flawed but deeply relatable characters. From an orphaned girl passing as a boy to find work to an Oregon teenager on a path of self-discovery, the novel's characters carry the story as they attempt to navigate their lives and manage the consequences of their decisions.
From the description of The Wild Birds by Emily Strelow on Amazon:
Cast adrift in 1870s San Francisco after the death of her mother, a girl named Olive disguises herself as a boy and works as a lighthouse keeper’s assistant on the Farallon Islands to escape the dangers of a world unkind to young women. In 1941, nomad Victor scours the Sierras searching for refuge from a home to which he never belonged. And in the present day, precocious fifteen year-old Lily struggles, despite her willfulness, to find a place for herself amongst the small town attitudes of Burning Hills, Oregon. Living alone with her hardscrabble mother Alice compounds the problem―though their unique relationship to the natural world ties them together, Alice keeps an awful secret from her daughter, one that threatens to ignite the tension growing between them.
The Wild Birds weaves together the stories of several characters. While none of the characters' lives are going quite like they imagined, each is working to find some peace and contentment—a home. Each character demonstrates a desire to be safe, loved, and understood, and these consistent motivations are what make the story so relatable. These universal desires allow the reader to sympathize with the story's characters, regardless of whether their actions are condonable.
The novel is filled with natural imagery and depicts characters with strong connections to the wilderness. The story spans multiple settings, with each as vivid as the last. The reader travels to deserts, forests, and oceans, and Strelow emphasizes the connections between each character and the nature and wildlife around them. The characters begin to feel inseparable from the wildlife—especially the birds—as metaphors, nicknames, and imagery unite the human and the wild, until the reader questions whether the towns and homes are all that tame, after all.
The unique structure interweaves seemingly unrelated characters, connecting them through the transfer of a collection of eggshells. The stories are balanced well, and the pacing maintains tension while allotting plenty of time to explore each character. While reading, I did wish for a bit more urgency during Alice and Lily's storyline, but overall, the story's stakes are high enough that I never found myself bored or disinterested. The story is well edited and concisely delivered, allowing the strong prose, imagery, and characterization to shine through.
Overall, The Wild Birds depicts characters whose flaws draw the reader wholly into their depths. Although spanning centuries and vastly different settings, the characters are all relatable in their regrets, uncertainty, and longing for lives that seem perpetually inches beyond their reach. I certainly recommend The Wild Birds for any reader who enjoys diving into characters' lives and exploring universal emotions, but readers with an interest in nature and environmental conservation will find the story particularly appealing.
* I received a copy of The Wild Birds in exchange for an honest review.