The Vietnam War traumatizes a soldier and his family.
In her quietly affecting second novel, playwright, lyricist, and librettist Harrington (Alice Bliss, 2011) returns to upstate New York, the setting of her previous fiction, and to a family grappling with the horrific war injury sustained by their son, Billy. When his helicopter was shot down, Billy alone survived, severely burned. A hospital stay is followed by challenging physical therapy that leaves him despondent, afraid he will never draw again—and drawing is his passion. The bird catalog of the title refers to Billy’s field journals, depicting in precise, brilliant detail the proliferation of birds he observed in woods, lakes, and fields. Drawing birds, he says, became “a doorway, a bridge….It’s how I lived in the world.” The central relationship of the novel is between Billy and his younger sister, Nell, with whom he shares the wonders of nature. Frustrated and powerless to help Billy, Nell watches in despair as he succumbs to drink, depression, and nightmares. Although Billy is a sympathetic character, his traumas are by now familiar in novels and memoirs of the Vietnam War, his distinction being his artistic talent and connection to nature. Yet the natural world that he so deeply loves is being destroyed: Nell documents songbirds’ levels of mercury, a toxin that attacks the birds’ nervous systems, distracting them from sitting on their eggs long enough to hatch. Billy reports on a “rainbow moniker” of chemical agents used in Vietnam; Nell’s father engages in a project to monitor water and soil contamination from pesticides. Subplots focus on Nell’s deepening love for the solid, dependable Harlow, also a survivor of war; and the unsolved disappearance of Nell’s best friend, and Billy’s love, Megan. That mystery underscores Billy’s sense of loss and the community’s fear of being caught in a whirl of uncontrollable events—the war far from home and an unknown threat close by. It is a community, filled with those “suffering in mind, body or spirit.”
A sensitive rendering of shattered lives.