Reviewed by Adele Annesi
The Feathered Bone, by New York Times bestselling author Julie Cantrell, fuses poetic voice and unwavering honesty in a haunting tale of worst fears come true, best intentions gone horribly wrong, and a freedom that brings hope beyond this life.
Set in New Orleans and rural Louisiana in the years involving the region’s most devastating storm, The Feathered Bone, Cantrell’s third novel, hurls its own tempests into the lives of its characters. The story begins just before Halloween with a sense of magic, as if anything could happen. And anything does happen, starting with the unthinkable. Wife, mother and social worker Amanda Salassi is already apprehensive about chaperoning her daughter Ellie’s sixth-grade field trip to the Big Easy when Ellie’s best friend, Sarah Broussard, disappears in the mist and fog without a trace.
The opening of the novel offers a feast for the senses in succinct, poetic prose. We instantly see, hear, smell, touch and taste the Big Easy in a way that leaves no doubt the city is alive and well. The novel’s present tense and Amanda’s first person perspective set a blistering pace that unfurls the plot as quickly as the reader can turn the pages. Ellie’s sixth-grade class launches into the heart of darkness, and we go, too.
Amid a cast of characters as rich and varied as creole gumbo, the story focuses on a cluster of women: Amanda, her daughter, Ellie, and Ellie’s best friend, Sarah, the girl who goes missing. It’s clear from the outset that Cantrell’s storytelling has only ripened since her first novel, enabling this work to explore the all too current topics of suicide, abuse, depression and human trafficking. Without an iota of gratuity, the author focuses not on these harrowing realities but on a thematic study that surfaced in her debut novel Into the Free, the power of lies to instill fear and the greater power of love, which, as noted in the novel’s opening quote from Erich Fromm, is never the child of domination but of freedom.
In The Feathered Bone, freedom comes at a price. No one is immune to seemingly insurmountable suffering. Amanda Salassi is a consummate wife, mother and social worker, but Sarah’s disappearance makes it clear that Amanda’s troubled marriage has been troubled from the start and that her daughter, Ellie, is inconsolable even by a social worker who, it seems, can fix every problem but those of her family.
Yet truth can penetrate the darkest prison and free the most entrenched, and The Feathered Bone makes effective use of letters to weave a compelling narrative thread. The recurring motifs of feather and sparrow achieve the same. More than once we’re reminded that a feather is soft and delicate but that its softness is precisely its strength. Even though sparrows may be sold two for a penny, not one falls to the ground—or flies—without a watchful eye.
The author’s exploration thus includes what faith means in today’s world, revealing how children and those of childlike faith make the best teachers. This lesson is also for Amanda, who found her own faith and maturity stunted at the very moment she learned she was adopted after years of believing otherwise. Here, the author also explores the role of truth, which, even when brutal, can bring freedom.
Real faith and freedom, however, are never without suffering, and the loss of an innocent twelve-year-old in the murk of the Big Easy exempts no one from accusation, suspicion and regret. Of these, regret is the worst. It bows beneath the weight of guilt, real or imagined, but offers no comfort. It’s regret that prods Amanda to say Sarah’s disappearance shouldn’t have happened on her watch, and regret that incites Ellie to say she should have stuck closer to her closest friend. Such sorrows harrow the soul, forcing each character’s priorities to shift with the ground underfoot, and suffering inevitably turns ugly as it does when it’s genuine.
As time and seasons audaciously march on, Amanda finds no love from her husband on Valentine’s Day or Easter or any of the holidays that arrive anew but not afresh, pushing the characters further from good. While loss steals childhood and innocence, the love of friends and the family of faith remain steadfast, even when we reject them, and love is allowed to doubt and be flawed, though children come of age too soon.
In the olive press of grief, the characters’ real selves emerge, whether through the offering of crawfish étouffée or Hurricane Katrina, which forces residents from their homes, helpless. During the chaos, the search for a missing child continues even without evidence she’s still alive. Amanda hears herself in Ellie, who says that only when she’s on the stage at school does she feel relief from the obdurate pain that stems from the loss of her best friend. In the whorl of despair, one outcome of life’s storms is inevitable, inescapable change—for everyone.
Against this backdrop Amanda ponders what only faith can: that when we humans came into this world the light God gave creation was already there waiting; somewhere that eternal heart of love still beats. With this revelation, Amanda stops trying to fix everyone and acknowledges her own need and, in doing so, opens the door to herself to find that nothing lasts forever, not even the bad. New friends and old offer colors of hope visible only in the light.
In the end, hope can be as painful as a sleeping limb returned to life. Yet a chapel in the heart-of-darkness swamp brings solace, as does discovery and a renewed sense of purpose. While elements of the story’s closing are somewhat hurried, there is no compromise of the overall work and the recurring images of sparrow and feather are reminders that no one is without a watchful eye—that when feathers do what they were made for, they carry a soul to the sky and set it free.
In The Feathered Bone, Cantrell brings a fresh, vibrant voice to a story of cinematic scope, expression and quality and artistry in the manner of Akira Kurosawa, who affirmed that to be an artist means never to avert your eyes.
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