FEATHER CROWNS by Bobbie Ann Mason


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 Christie and James Wheeler, tobacco farmers in turn-of-the- century Hopewell, Kentucky, and already parents of three, become the most illustrious people of their time and place when Christie gives birth to quintuplets. Her pregnancy was marked by a misdiagnosis of fibroids--and after the birth Christie wonders whether her so liking sex with her husband (as well as being once erotically charged by a preacher's millennial verve) could have contributed to so freakish an issue. But whatever their cause, the five babies demand heroic attention: Christie's milk is nowhere near adequate; a black nursemaid is called in. Also arriving are the curious--from as far away as St. Louis and Chicago. But in a matter of months the babies all die--``wooled to death,'' Christie thinks, from being overhandled by strangers; killed by Negro milk, James prefers to think. In any case, life after the babies grows hard economically as well as sentimentally; when a crop goes bad, Christie and James allow themselves to be suckered into going on a lecture tour (with the five tiny embalmed bodies in a glass case) that degenerates into a carny sideshow and worse. Shaking off their nightmare, the Wheelers finally allow a scientific institute to keep the babies' bodies for research; and the book ends with Christie in old age paying a visit to the Dionne quints. Mason (Love Life, etc.) has a wonderful story here and knows it, but has chosen to tell it so slowly, at such deliberate pace, that only the babies' deaths (and Christie's frantic impotence to stop the dying)--plus some of the freak-show hucksterism on the post-death tour--come over as vivid enough to be indelible. Mason's usually fine dialogue is muffled by historical distance, and the book simply is too long to maintain Christie's painful awe at life's oddness. The theme of exploitation rises foremost, but it's a late one the novel accedes to almost halfheartedly--sociology more cut and dried than the fearful psychology of Christie's grief. (First printing of 60,000)

Pub Date: Sept. 29th, 1993
ISBN: 0-06-016780-7
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 1993


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