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When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky

This week, Don reviews "When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky" by Margaret Verble.

Margaret Verble’s novel begins with a scene you have never read before. Two Feathers, a Cherokee Indian originally from Oklahoma, now living in 1926 Nashville, Tennessee and working at the Glendale Park and Zoo, a kind of Coney Island, waits on top of a 40-foot tower. Her mare, Ocher, comes up a long ramp, alone, and Two Feathers, in bathing costume, gets on, bareback. Ocher dives, head first, down into a pool of water 11 feet deep. No one is hurt, horse nor rider. The crowd goes wild.

You can look this up. There are astonishing YouTube videos of horse diving, and it is claimed that no horses were injured although a number of riders were. This entertainment went on deep into the twentieth century. Besides horse diving, this novel depicts a range of human enterprises: entertainment, business and courtship. I was surprised a little at how genteel, even Victorian, most of the courting was. After all, the Roaring Twenties are in full swing and elsewhere Scott and Zelda are in Paris drinking and watching Josephine Baker dance clad only in bananas.

This novel also moves on a spiritual plane. The heroine believes we are all immortal and: “certain animals have minds, spirits, distinctive personalities, preferences for work, and senses of humor.” They are “like humans, only in different bodies.” Two Feathers likes to stop by each day to commune with Adam, an old buffalo, who had once been Buffalo Bill’s pet. They have some shared history. She also visits a giant old tortoise, Methuselah. He is a little lonely, having lost his mate, and he shares an enclosure with Dinah, a hippopotamus named after an Ethel Waters hit tune.

The hippo and the tortoise have become friends. Two Feathers understands that this is not unusual. A couple of idiot teenage boys come by to throw rocks at the animals. The Scopes appeals trial is taking place in downtown Nashville at this time and the sensible behavior of the animals is contrasted with the stupid behavior of a lot a humans who might or might not be descended from monkeys but in any case show no improvement on monkeys.

Little Elk, an amazing character who moves from one realm to another, has been, conventionally speaking, dead for 100 years, but his spirit is alive. He strives to act as a protector of Two Feathers, who is in some danger. Early in the story, Little Elk is just a shimmer, vaporous. Even Two Feathers can barely perceive him. But he knows of the transformative powers of tobacco. Invisible, bare-chested, wearing only a loincloth and a sash, he stands among humans, inhaling their tobacco smoke which helps him generate the power to move and act in the corporeal world with regular physical power. Tobacco is, it seems, big magic. Of course, if we live in a world of spirits, animal and humans, and no one is really dead, this can be an enormous consolation.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.