Books: Sparrow Migrations

The premise of Sparrow Migrations intrigued me – “a 12-year-old boy with autism, witnesses the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ from a sightseeing ferry and becomes obsessed with the birds that caused the plane crash.” Other characters are on the ferry or the plane that landed in the Hudson, and while they seem to have nothing else in common with each other, their lives intersect over the course of the novel.

In an author Q&A, Cari Noga explains that she wanted to write about “ordinary people transformed by an extraordinary event –and by each other.” Furthermore, she wanted to make it a “braided narrative” – “multiple story lines that intertwine.” So once she had an initial idea for the novel, she had to find some other characters and conflicts to form the other strands of the braid.

I was not at all surprised to learn that the idea for the story started with Robby, the boy with autism. He is the most fully-developed character. The parts of the story dealing with him and his parents, and their struggles in parenting someone with autism, draw the reader into the characters’ minds and emotions in all their complexity as they deal with a variety of situations. Since the author and her husband have a boy with autism, it is hardly surprising that she can portray their experiences so well.

The other characters, in contrast, were add-ons created for the sake of the “braided narrative,” and their conflicts are those that the author thought would be interesting to deal with. Noga presumably does not have the same personal experiences to draw on with a couple dealing with infertility or a pastor’s wife dealing with homosexuality, and these characters do not come across with the same depth.

They serve their purpose in the book, but I did not get the same sense of “that’s what it must be like to be in that situation” as I did with Robby and his parents. Their behavior seemed more scripted, conforming to a set pattern assigned to each character.

The pastor’s wife, for instance, comes across primarily as 1) a woman resenting her marriage to a man who cares more about his image than his family; and 2) a mother torn between her desire to be “free” and guilt over the effect of her actions on her teenage daughter. But what about her own religious faith or experiences?

Does she struggle with doubt? Is she a hypocrite who never believed to begin with but pretended to? Does she still have faith but needs to express it in a different way, and if so why is it never mentioned? What initially drew her to her husband? What kind of relationships does she have with other people in the church? Someone doesn’t just happen to wind up as a pastor’s wife, and her character would have had more depth if these things had been explored more.

As for the couple dealing with infertility, perhaps they were just both selfish people, though at least they did grow personally over the course of the novel. But for them to reach the point they do, there had to be more to their relationship to begin with than just two people who had their lives carefully planned out and found that the other filled a role in that plan. Whatever it was, though – or if it still is – is hard for me to see.

While I was reading, however, I wasn’t thinking much of this. I was just absorbed in the story, finishing the novel in one weekend. It was only after I finished and was trying to process all of it (one of those books you can’t just put down and jump right into another one), that I reflected how limited its perspective was.

Yes, there are self-righteous religious people, including pastors, but it’s a shame to let that be the only face of Christianity that is seen. The religion that man preached was not the Gospel, there was nothing of grace in it. Of the other two pastors mentioned in the book, one is a man just like the first, and the other is a woman, who is portrayed briefly and positively but makes no mention of faith or worship.

I wonder if Noga has had primarily negative experiences of church and churchgoers. She makes a great deal of effort to explain what it is like living with autism, both for Robby himself and for his parents. She does not sugarcoat it, showing how difficult it can be and how it is not something you get over as you get older. Yet she portrays the situation in a very sympathetic way. She makes no such effort for traditional Christianity.

I am very glad, by the way, that my own husband has always made it clear that his family comes before the church. We have differences of opinion, sometimes, regarding the extent of family involvement in certain aspects of church life, but our purpose there is not primarily to make him look good.

Bird-lovers may also enjoy the book because of the focus on birds, in particular Canada geese and a chapter that centers on plovers. The sparrows of the title are little in evidence, however. One character has a bird-feeder. Someone else mentions the Scriptural reference to sparrows (Matthew 10:29-31). I think there must be some symbolism to the title but I’m not sure what it is.

On the whole I think it’s a very good book, especially considering it’s a first novel. I think it could have been better, though, if Noga had stuck to the story about the autistic boy and his family rather than feeling a need to bring in the other characters and storylines.

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