It’s summer 1926 in Nashville, Tenn., And a young Cherokee named Two Feathers is living something like her best life. She works as a horse diver at Glendale Park Zoo, jumping with her mare, Ocher, 12 meters into a pool, to the delight of amazed onlookers. It’s hard work, but it allows her to send money to her family in Oklahoma – all things considered, she doesn’t have too many complaints.
And then things are going very, very badly. In When two feathers fell from the sky, novelist Margaret Verble takes an interesting look at prohibition-era South America and its long history of racism. It’s not a perfect novel, but at best it’s a compelling novel.
Two are on loan to Glendale Park Zoo “from 101, the last show in the Wild West in existence”. Her job as a horse-drawn diver suits her perfectly: “She knew early on that she didn’t want to take care of the chickens, stand in front of boiling water to canning vegetables, or cook for people. She wanted to ride a horse and shoot guns.
And she’s good at it. But his life is turned upside down when a dive goes awry, sending Two and Ocher into a pit. Two are rescued by Clive, the park zookeeper, and treated for a broken leg. But Ocher dies, plunging Two into a deep depression: “Ocher was as good as a human. Or better. All horses were.”
Two refuses to return to Oklahoma for treatment, so she moves into her dorm and spends time with friends including Crawford, a zoo worker who knows he’s considered a second-class citizen because he’s black. (The park allows blacks to work there and participate in the rides if they are “well behaved” and accompanied by a white person – it was “it was liberal that way,” notes Aroubl Verble.)
Aside from her friendship with Crawford and a few other colleagues, things don’t get any easier for Two: she finds herself stalked by Jack, a young zoo worker who is almost a travesty of evil: “He was on his way to what he wanted … it had to do with sex with Two. Have it at his disposal. Keep it as his own. Her only pleasure was feeling in control and pulling things over people. He liked to dominate animals. And sex with an inferior race didn’t put him off at all. “
Two is also followed by Little Elk, a ghost who seems to be watching over her, while trying to stop the desecration of the graves Glendale was built on. Little Elk is invisible to all living except Clive, who himself is haunted by memories of war. All of their lives collide with the climax of the book, which is really exciting.
Verble is an immensely gifted writer, but she’s making a few missteps here. The book changes perspectives between multiple characters, and too many chapters that aren’t focused on Two turn out to be shaggy dog stories – they’re well-written and illuminate some of Tennessee history in the 1920s, but does not add much to the common thread of the novel. Verble is clearly fascinated by Glendale, who really existed, and she clearly did her research, but it seems she tried to incorporate too much of what she learned into the novel.
But while the novel can seem hazy at times, Verble makes up for it with his true storytelling skill. Her occasional wanderings aside, the book moves fast, and she manages to hold the landing thanks to a few clever twists.
The characters in Verble are mostly memorable, especially Two. It’s hard to pull off an original version of the harsh but vulnerable archetype, but Verble does it well enough, giving the young lady a real personality that shines through in her terse but tender dialogue. Crawford is also a fascinating character, although the reader wishes he had featured a bit more in the novel. And the chapters featuring Little Elk are executed with real finesse; while having a character that is a ghost can come across as a gimmick, Verble plays him with a straight face, and the bet works.
When two feathers fell from the sky is not without flaws, but it is a fascinating novel by an author who writes with sensitivity and compassion. For readers interested in 20th-century American history, this is definitely a walk to take.