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First Fiction Friday: The Economy of Sparrows
In his debut novel The Economy of Sparrows, (Thistledown Press) naturalist Trevor Herriot offers an innovative look at climate change and our shared grief over the loss of our natural habitat.
Read on for more about the novel, and why readers of Guy Vanderhaeghe will especially appreciate it.
The Economy of Sparrows (Thistledown Press, 2023)
Trevor Herriot is a naturalist and grassland conservationist. The Economy of Sparrows is his eighth book, but first novel. He has authored several award-winning books, including Grass, Sky, Song and the national bestseller River in a Dry Land, both of which were short-listed for the Governor General’s Award for Nonfiction. Towards a Prairie Atonement, published in October 2016, took two Saskatchewan Book Awards. Islands of Grass (2017), a book of his essays accompanying the photographs of Branimir Gjetvaj, also won two Saskatchewan Book Awards and was short-listed for a High Plains Book award. He is a recipient of the Kloppenburg Award for Literary Merit and the Saskatchewan Order of Merit. He and his wife Karen live in Regina, and spend much of their time on a piece of Aspen Parkland prairie east of the city.
Why you need to read this now:
This novel marks an exciting development in the long career of nonfiction writer and naturalist Trevor Herriot. The Economy of Sparrows, his debut novel, deals head on, in surprising and innovative ways, with climate change and its root causes, and our shared grief over the loss of natural habitat.
The book is populated with compelling characters. The main character, Nell Rowan, has recently retired from her job as a janitor at the National Museum of Nature in Ottawa. Nell’s a bit of a loner, obsessed with birds and the natural world, and she finds herself adrift after she returns to the prairie homestead she grew up on. She’s increasingly troubled by an unresolved mystery at the centre of her life: her mother’s disappearance in a snowstorm when Nell was twelve.
Nell’s recovering from a failed love affair, and still mulling over research she did at the National Museum of Nature, where she worked the night shift. She spent part of her shifts secretly delving into the archives, reading up on a famous 19th century naturalist, William Spreadborough, who in the spring of 1892 was shooting birds in the prairie valley where she now walks.
The minor characters are terrific too: Nell has a crusty old uncle who she tries to keep an eye on, even though he’s difficult; there’s a colourful neighbour who seems very conventional but becomes interested in Nell’s personal bird atlas; there’s also a Faustian devil figure who blackmails Nell when she works at the museum.
She has a lot to deal with, and now she’s returned to a rural area where few folks are willing to face the truth of the past or the environmental crisis now upon us—so she’s battling despair while trying to make herself a new life. Everything changes with the arrival of Carmelita, a teenage foster kid who Nell cares for temporarily. Carmelita’s fresh view on the lives of animals and birds, and her deep connection with them, helps Nell approach her past traumas and present difficulties in new ways.
While this could be a heavy-duty read, all of the deep abstract thinking of the author is lifted into view effortlessly by the story as all the different strands of narrative come together in a revelatory, and ultimately hopeful, way.
X + Y
The Economy of Sparrows combines the environmental concern and insight of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour with the bone-deep understanding of prairie folks in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s novels.
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