STRANGE BIRDS IN THE TREE OF HEAVEN by Karen Salyer McElmurray

STRANGE BIRDS IN THE TREE OF HEAVEN

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Intense characterizations and strikingly apt imagery distinguish this lushly rhetorical first novel set in Kentucky’s coal-mining region, the work of a prizewinning short-story writer. Nearly 60 years in the lives of the Wallens of Mining Hollow are portrayed through the juxtaposed—and rather artily dreamlike—narratives of Earl Wallen, a veteran of Pearl Harbor, who ruefully describes himself thus: “Has been singer and guitar player turned coal miner”; his wife Ruth and their adult son Andrew. Ruth has had an unhappy childhood made worse when her “romantic,” ostensibly artistic mother Stella runs off, leaving Ruth alone with her father, Tobias, who becomes a fundamentalist “preacher of sorts.” His inflamed religiosity will burden her even during her married life and will eventually, ironically, reclaim her. Andrew tells (unfortunately, in wispily lyrical fashion) how he gradually, guiltily recognized his homosexuality, loved and “sinned” with a handsome boyhood friend, and passively accepts his mother’s passionate condemnation. These “strange birds”(McElmurray’s witty title has a surely unintended faintly condescending ring) are observed with scrupulously accurate period detail: the re-creation of the giddy, almost partylike atmosphere of the 1940s is especially convincing, as is the author’s vivid account of “the summer of the revival” (1962, when Andrew first feels the stirrings of same-sex love). And she contrives several effective symbolic scenes, notably the depiction of a grieving hound bitch sorrowfully circling the freshly dug grave where her malformed, lifeless newborn pups lie buried. Only infrequently, as in a badly misconceived scene in a gay drag bar, does McElmurray lose control of her novel’s tight design and emotional unity. Perhaps overindebted to such literary predecessors as Joyce Carol Oates’s early novels and William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, but nevertheless a strongly imagined and skillfully executed debut performance.

Pub Date: Sept. 30th, 1999
ISBN: 1-892514-24-9
Publisher: Hill Street
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1999